THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY AMBASSADOR SHIRIN TAHIR-KHELI AND AMBASSADOR FRANK WISNER ON PRESIDENT'S TRIP TO INDIA, BANGLADESH AND PAKISTAN The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
4:17 P.M. EST
MR. HAMMER: Good afternoon. It is my pleasure to introduce two distinguished South Asia experts who will be briefing you today. We have with us Ambassador Frank Wisner, who held and holds the career rank of ambassador. He has had a very long and distinguished career in the Foreign Service, starting in 1961, but also served this last tour as U.S. ambassador to India from '94 to '97. And he will begin with a presentation. He's got to run and catch a flight so I would then encourage any quick questions for him.
But we also have Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli, who is at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Director of South Asia Institute. But also, remarkably, spent six years at the National Security Council from '84 to '90, serving five different national security advisors, which is quite a feat.
So anyway, Mr. Ambassador, if you would start?
AMBASSADOR WISNER: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much. I am pleased to be able to come and talk to you on the eve of the President's trip to South Asia. It is an extraordinarily important event for all of us who follow that part of the world, have business, in my case, interests there and care very much about what's going to happen. There has been no President in South Asia in 22 years. My memory -- that's for India. My memory for Pakistan, President Nixon was the last president to visit. And yet, 25 percent or just slightly under the world's population lives in South Asia. It will be extraordinarily important to the United States in this century to maintain security in Asia, to see America's economic prospects advance as that region grows economically and you really can't face some of the major challenges of the new century without South Asia, challenges of population, the environment, the new diseases, HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria strains that we have not known before.
In the economic dimension, the President is going to be facing a situation that is truly unprecedented for American industry. We have, for some time, been India's largest trader and investor. Today, we are looking at Indian investments of nearly $250 billion in power over the next several years; at least $100 billion in telecommunications. Indian industry will be retooled and much will be sourced in this country, and you have a growing Indian middle class with a taste for consumer goods -- many of which are inclined towards the United States.
Beyond the old economy, if you will, is the new economy. Information technology, if you think about it for a moment, between 30 and 50 percent of Silicon Valley start-ups were launched by Indian engineers, and about 30 percent of the world's software engineers are Indian or of Indian origin.
India's, in addition, a small trader on the international scene. And when you look at the challenges the United States faces in shaping a global trading regime compatible with our interests -- in agriculture, in services, in information technology, issues of labor, issues of environmental sensitivity, the Indians are right at the center of shaping the international consensus, and there is a great deal of overlap between what they're after and we're after.
India, which will be the focal point of the visit, is changing. She's entering the second generation of her reforms. She's moving from an administered to a regulated economy. She looks like she will be registering about a seven percent rate of growth; she will keep that up. The perennial Indian factor of poverty will begin to be alleviated.
The President will have to face the great challenges of Indian reform. The budget deficit, privatization, broadening and deepening financial markets, and dealing with the shortages of infrastructure -- telecommunications, transportation, and power.
The visit is a terrific opportunity, therefore, for the United States to root itself in the region, to get some traction on the issues to create a privileged position for us as we go forward.
But it comes also at a time in which there are rising tensions in South Asia, and these tensions have to be addressed. From Kargil to the coup in Pakistan, to the skyjacking, to now-increasing violence along the line of control, the region is showing a marked increase in tension. These issues must be addressed -- ironically, only quietly and in diplomatic terms, for to take them public in India and in Pakistan is to distort and to cause great trouble for American diplomacy. We need to be clear about our principles, but quiet in our pursuit of it.
Today, Mrs. Albright, the Secretary of State, laid out an agenda of great importance, and I recommend heartily those who haven't seen it take a moment to read it. She came down firmly that the United States will continue to pursue its nonproliferation dialogue with the nations of South Asia. But she made explicitly clear that in the nuclear age, borders cannot be changed. They must be respected. The differences have got to be pursued, be they Kashmir or any of the other perennial problems that have been the troubles of South Asia.
She made it clear the United States will not mediate unless asked by all sides. But at the same time, it's critically important that the President keep lines of communications open to both parties, India and Pakistan in this case. And she underscored the importance of respecting the line of control in Kashmir and reducing the violence that is occurring along it. Mrs. Albright made it absolutely clear that the use of terror across frontiers and inside of other nations can't be permitted and will be actively discouraged by the United States, whether it flows from Afghanistan or stems out of Pakistan.
We aim, therefore, I hope, as the President goes forward, to be able to create -- turn a new page in a relationship with South Asia, notably with India, the dominant power, to differentiate America's approach to Pakistan on the one hand and India on the other, which is increasingly a global player. To be able to make it clear that we won't take advantage of India with respect to our relationships with China any more than we will take advantage with Pakistan in a growing American relationship with India.
We have a new generation growing up, many taking power. It is a time for a new vision. India will be as important a factor in Asia's future and in our relationship in the century ahead as China has emerged these days.
With those opening remarks and if Shirin -- take a couple of questions or -- good. Great.
Q You mentioned that first -- this is the first visit in 22 years. Why it took 22 years for the world's richest democracy to reach to the largest democracy in the world. And also what do you think the relations between the two countries today and after presidential visit?
AMBASSADOR WISNER: Right. Well, there are many reasons historically why the President of the United States and administrations have not given importance, the same importance to South Asia they have given other regions. Much was rooted in the Cold War, where India was seen to be closer to the erstwhile Soviet Union. This restricted our diplomacy, raised the level of tension in the relationship. India looked at the United States in that regard as favoring Pakistan. We had disagreements of a variety.
We had no broad base for the relationship. The economic interactions were very narrow. There wasn't a way to accommodate the differences.
Today, we have a real chance to see the relationship broaden, politically, economically, right across the board, so that you are able to cope with those differences and manage those differences. I think we are facing a very different day.
I have just come back from India. Those of you who are going on the trip, I think you will sense a vibrancy and enthusiasm about a new day with the United States, a new relationship, and it gives me quite a lot of confidence.
Q Despite the Secretary of State's tough words, do you see any short-term hopes of accomplishing any nonproliferation commitments from India or Pakistan?
AMBASSADOR WISNER: My main hope, personally -- I am not speaking for the administration -- is that the nonproliferation norms that are being pursued, CTBT, fissile material cutoff bans, are ways of indicating restraint, ways of -- that South Asia can make a statement that they -- that south Asia wishes to hold under control the nuclear age. And then to move beyond that to have a small and smaller -- a small nuclear capability. It is inevitable there is going to be one. Small and de-alerted capability.
I think the role the President can play on a trip like this is, of course, to encourage South Asian nations to seek to join global norms as part of our global policies. But to try to create the climate of trust and confidence between himself and this country and the parties in South Asia that permits us to talk about the sensitive nuclear issues in a quiet way, and to talk about regional tensions.
Yes, sir in the back of the room?
Q What's your understanding of the relationship between the Pakistani government and the terrorist organizations that operate either -- be that in Kashmir or in Afghanistan itself? In other words, is it direct control, is it informal contact?
AMBASSADOR WISNER: Well, it's a matter of considerable debate. And I think it is very difficult to prove that there is a direct organic link between the Pakistani government or its agencies and organizations that are directly responsible for terror. Over the years, these organizations have, however, found haven in Pakistan and they have exported terrorists across the border into India.
The actions along the line of control do have an active element of Pakistani involvement -- the arms, munitions, the artillery screens that are laid before infiltration takes place. Pakistan has traditionally argued that this is part of a liberation movement as opposed to terrorism.
But when you get down to strictly defined terrorism -- issues like the skyjacking, the recent Indian Airlines skyjacking, there is, to the best of my knowledge -- I certainly haven't seen it -- that proveable link that puts this issue on the doorstep of the Pakistani government.
Q Ambassador, the Army General Musharraf overthrew a democratically-elected prime minister in the fall. He has since required that justices swear allegiance to him. He's throwing journalists in jail. Nawaz Sharif is in jail, his lawyer's been killed. What's the President of the United States doing going to see a man like that?
AMBASSADOR WISNER: I feel very comfortable -- I've spent a life in diplomacy, and I have no, obviously, personally, and I would hope the President and I know the President feels very strongly about the importance of restoring democracy, the rule of law, strengthening governance in Pakistan. Those issues are -- I'm certain the President is going to deal with each one of them while he's there.
But I believe fundamentally, if you're going to do business with a country as important as Pakistan certainly is, at a time when there are real issues on the table, you have to be able to communication. And to be able to communication, you've got to communication at the very highest levels.
The history of the past has been, we have influence with Pakistan. We were able to play a role in the Kargil event. If we decide not to communication, then we don't have influence, we can't use our influence in a constructive way. So I support wholeheartedly the President's decision to take the -- to go to Pakistan, to engage the chief executive, and to engage the leadership of the country.
Q -- meeting with him, what if anything can the President do to avoid sending the wrong signal to other countries on the brink, like Indonesia?
AMBASSADOR WISNER: Well, I'm certain the President will find both the right words and the right attitudes. All of our principles bind us in that direction. I understand the President is going to be speaking publicly. There will be private discussions as well as public ones.
Q You mean addressing on television the Pakistani people?
AMBASSADOR WISNER: Yes, I don't know the details of the President's trip. I'm not in the administration. But I'm absolutely certain he is speaking, and if he speaks, he will not be shy about asserting America's commitments to democratic institutions.
MR. HAMMER: -- going, but we have Shirin --
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: I would like to reinforce what Ambassador Wisner had said, and just add one small note to that. And that is the downturn in the relationship between India and Pakistan, which has occurred in the last year since the opening in Lahore seemed so promising. I think it has created a situation which is dangerous and where the constructive engagement of the United States at the highest level -- and that is from the President of the United States -- can make a difference. If there's one thing that I learned in all those years on the NSC, when the engagement with India started to be very active, as was the relationship with Pakistan growing, that presidential attention highlights the need for restraint in the subcontinent. It is something that should be obvious to the leadership there.
But it has -- if you look at the list of agreements that India and Pakistan have been able to reach on confidence-building, they've essentially been all those that the United States not only supported and encouraged, but also in many ways initiated. So I think that at least in the private conversations, which is where probably this belongs, it's a very important time for the President's attention to be focused on South Asia, from South Asia's point of view as well.
Q Are you going to be -- the President has said that he would get involved in mediating the Kashmir issue only if both sides are requesting that he do so. And I was wondering if you had any knowledge or any sign that India would be interested in having the United States or the President get involved.
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: Well, all signs are, and the Indians have not been shy about indicating that they are definitely not interested in having the United States, even as was put by the Prime Minister of India, I believe, yesterday, no matter how well-intentioned, should the President be involved, which is, I think, a good start in point.
However, I think the President is in a unique position to encourage the fact that while the United States accepts the fact that India does not want mediation, then it is important for them, the two countries, to engage bilaterally. In other words, you cannot say that bilateral engagement is all that is wanted, and then have a total absence of a dialogue.
Today, India and Pakistan have zero interaction at the government level and at any level. I mean, this is unheard of in the recent histories of countries with antagonisms like that. You did not have it in the East-West, you did not have it in the Middle East. Track two, track one, anything.
So I think it highlights the need for engagement, and I don't see anybody, other than the President of the United States, in this position to be able to bring that to the notice of the two leaders.
Q Indian officials seem to be upset about the decision to make a stop in Islamabad. Do you feel that they understand now the reasons and that it will have had an adverse effect on the visit to India?
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: Well, the Indian officials have, themselves, said, and I think they have sort of stepped back a bit from the extremely tough position they took on this issue. I think that they have been satisfied that the U.S. is not going over there to bless a military government, that the President of the United States needs to have lines of communications open. And, actually, it is in India's interest as well that the collapse of Pakistan is not going to help anybody, particularly those in Pakistan's immediate neighborhood.
So I think that the focus has shifted from that aspect of the trip to saying, okay, in what ways can the U.S.-Indian relationship be buttressed as a result of this visit. So I think that change has occurred and I am certainly one who is very glad that it has. Because I think a lot of energy was spent for weeks and weeks on this issue.
Q You mentioned the possibility of the collapse of Pakistan. Given the economic problems there and the constitutional crisis, how serious do you see that threat and what sort of scenario would follow?
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: To answer the last part of your question, the scenario -- any scenario that follows -- I mean, it's a nightmare scenario; I don't see any good scenarios coming out of that particular event, if should it occur.
Countries and nations have a way of going on so, you know, sometimes it is easy to sort of write them off. But nonetheless, I think the conditions facing Pakistan are severe. And the irony and the sadness of it has been that these conditions, many of them, were created under the only sort of longest period of democratic rule that Pakistan has had. In other words, the failure of civilian elected leadership to deliver on the promise that was handed them with such hope only a decade ago has made it very, very much tougher, I think, for the country.
The economic crisis is really the most urgent, and there are some steps being taken which I think are critically needed. The economic team that they've put together, according to everyone's review including the harshest critics of Pakistan, is a first-class team. But of course, the economy cannot be turned around very quickly. So in the interim, the government has to figure out a way of managing social difficulties, including the question of sectarianism and law and order. I'd put those two as the issues.
Now, these two conditions have been managed in recent months. It's probably one of the few things that the military government has been able to deliver, because they have been able to curtail the internal violence, which was besetting all Pakistani cities on a regular, nightly basis. But the social, underlying causes, many people think are economic, so until you turn the economic situation around, the problem is still very acute.
Q -- anything that the President can do on this trip that would help that?
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: I think -- you know, presidential visits -- and despite all those years in the NSC, we were never able to get the presidents out there -- but presidential visits do many things. They not only show the flag on behalf of the U.S., but they also are an indication of U.S. interest. This is a non-tangible but very important thing in South Asia, where perceptions and signals loom far larger than they do in the Western world.
So the presence of the President, obviously despite a lot of advice not to go, I think is a very strong indication of American continued interest in a stable, secular Pakistan that is at peace with itself. Those are the kinds of perceptions that I think can help in terms of getting the kind of economic assistance, not to mention the votes necessary in IMF or the World Bank, et cetera.
American interest is sort of the key to Western interest, which is sort of the underpinning of the international financial institutions. So, yes, I think by the President going, this does give them an opportunity -- it doesn't guarantee success. That will have to come from Pakistan.
Q The collapse of Pakistan -- going back to that -- Pakistan had been ruled by the military and by the elected governments. So both are -- both could not rule the country, so who will rule the country or who will bring the changes? Because what most Pakistanis are feeling is that it's not the government that is corrupt or military is corrupt, but maybe because of the -- they are spending or financing the terrorism across the border. That's what India feels, that's what most Pakistanis feel. So what is the future? I mean, if both have ruled, but who can bring the changes?
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: Well, I don't agree with one part of what you're saying, that it's the involvement with India or what's going on in Kashmir that's bringing the collapse of Pakistan. Defense expenditures are of course high in the subcontinent as such. India has just raised its defense expenditure by 28 percent. Pakistan has, along with debt servicing, about 40 percent of the budget goes to these two items and has continued to do so.
I think the malaise that has overcome the society and the disillusionment with institutions, and the breakdown of institutions, which unfortunately was started with the political leadership under -- is of the severest kind. And I think Pakistanis who have not given up on their country feel that it's the revival of these institutions which is terribly, terribly important before you can put the country politically back on the right track.
So I think the debate there is not between who is the more corrupt of the two. Corruption is endemic and corruption is endemic in South Asia for many reasons. But there are other countries that have managed to put that aside and even with large pockets of poverty have a thriving middle class, as has India. So things can coexist. The question is, how do you manage them, where do you put the emphasis and who comes out ahead.
Q The people pay the price.
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: Yes, but the breakup of Pakistan actually means that more people will suffer and more people will pay the price. So this is a chance. And a lot of Pakistanis, thinking Pakistanis say this really is the last chance to try and see if -- Pakistan can be revived.
Q How India can help, being a neighbor --
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: That's a wonderful question and I am glad you asked that. Because ever since leaving government, I spent all my sort of existence trying to see if there are enough senior people in India and Pakistan who actually want to try and build a different future.
I think India can help in many ways, long-term, mid-term, immediately. I think immediately India can help by engaging Pakistan, by not focusing on the isolation of Pakistan, which happened as a result of the coup. But India and Pakistan have fought two-and-a-half or three, depending on who you speak to, wars and they have overcome that bitterness and started afresh.
The, I think, time has come for these two countries to actually try and do that. So India can immediately do something psychologically and otherwise. But there are ways in which the two countries can interact that is productive. The economic opportunities, for example, of trade -- India-Pakistan trade, official level -- is $100 million. The unofficial trade is $2.5 billion. It comes via smuggling or via third countries. So obviously they're trading; it's just that the governments lose revenue, and they don't build those habits of cooperation that are terribly, terribly important for any region. And South Asia is now practically the only region where there is local cooperation on the trade side, and any of these other issues.
But the disparity in size, and the importance of India, will hopefully make India comfortable enough with its role in the region that it can act the bigger power that it is, in terms of its smaller neighbors. I think that has already begun to happen, but I hope that that will accelerate as India feels more comfortable.
Q Is there a danger that all the talk of nuclear proliferation, of the turmoil in the region, will overshadow economic development issues and other matters, particularly in India, that the President will be dealing with?
AMBASSADOR TAHIR-KHELI: I think there is that danger. As I listen to all the very, very interesting and informative analyses leading up to the President's visit, I'm struck by the promise of the economic relationship that Ambassador Wisner and others have referred to. But I'm also struck by the fact that the promise of the economic miracle that could be India is held back by this fear on the part of those who would otherwise be investing more freely, regarding the possibility of a nuclear exchange.
In this open world, where capital can go anywhere -- and I don't mean just capital in terms of transfers in and out, but investments on the ground: infrastructure, communications, a whole host of other things -- you find that you've got to be somewhat competitive for global capital. And I think that that would be even more enhanced were there to be some modicum of peace between India and Pakistan.
And I think it's doable. Indian leaders have tried to reach out. They did something very unique in Lahore. And I think the Indian Prime Minister himself has said that, you know, you can't change geography; that in the end, we have to deal with each other. So one has to sort of hope that -- you know, these are old civilizations with some new problems, that they somehow find a way of doing them. And the President of the United States going, I think, refocuses energies in the region and outside on this part of the world.
Q Thank you very much.
END 4:45 P.M. EST