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Departure Of U.S. Troops From Afghanistan Raises Concerns In Neighboring Pakistan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Security officials from Pakistan are visiting the United States this week. One of those officials is Moeed Yusuf. He's well-known in Washington, where he used to live and work for a U.S. think tank. Now he's visiting here as Pakistan's national security adviser. Yusuf says if it was up to him, he would be talking about his country's potential for business.

MOEED YUSUF: Yesterday I was having dinner with somebody and a former - a global head of Coca-Cola was telling me that their profits in Pakistan are 22% year on year. Global profits - 2%, 3%. That's the Pakistan we want to have a conversation about.

INSKEEP: Instead, Moeed Yusuf must talk of war, the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan. U.S. troops are gone from there now, leaving an Afghan government on the defensive against the Taliban. And Pakistan has a big stake in that country just across a long and mountainous border. Pakistan is a destination for Afghan refugees and militants. It also has ties to the Taliban. Though Pakistan denies supporting the group, it says the Taliban must be allowed to join the Afghan government to bring peace. We sat with Yusuf in Pakistan's Embassy in Washington.

YUSUF: We want to see the U.S. continue taking the lead in trying to find a political settlement because the danger here is that if the message on the ground in Afghanistan is interpreted - I'm not saying that is the message - but if it's interpreted as saying, oh, the U.S. has checked out, everybody's leaving, you are going to see more militias, warlordism, more conflict. And thus, we've had very good conversations on that here.

INSKEEP: You said that it shouldn't seem the United States has checked out. But doesn't it seem to a lot of people in the region that the United States has checked out?

YUSUF: That's the worry. And that's why it is even more important that the United States, in partnership with Pakistan, is seen visibly talking about the need for peace, getting all Afghan political forces together in a room to negotiate what they think is the right future for their country.

INSKEEP: Right now, of course, it's not a serious peace negotiation. It's a war. How strong, in your estimation, is the Afghan government?

YUSUF: Oh, clearly, by any definition, you can't say they're strong, and, you know, that's the problem. We have been talking, again and again, to the Afghan government and others that we are willing to and have been facilitating an attempt to have a conversation. Unfortunately, the Afghan government's rhetoric towards Pakistan has been a very open, transparent effort, unfortunately, to shift the blame on Pakistan, as if the failures inside Afghanistan are of Pakistan's making. It's very, very negative for Pakistanis who've sacrificed so much for this war.

INSKEEP: Would the complete collapse of this government be in Pakistan's interest?

YUSUF: Absolutely not, nor forceful takeover. We have publicly stated - my prime minister said it again and again - we are not for any forceful takeover. This is the message we've been giving everybody. It is not in anybody's interest.

INSKEEP: Is that what you've been giving the Taliban?

YUSUF: Absolutely. Without any doubt, publicly and whatever leverage one can use to convey messages privately, that is what we are saying.

INSKEEP: They don't seem to be listening.

YUSUF: Steve, one thing I want to say - you know, I feel - it's almost absurd for me to hear some talk about, oh, Pakistan may be supporting the Taliban. If we were supporting the Taliban, would we not be able to use leverage to ensure that 80,000 Pakistanis weren't affected over the years? We have anti-Pakistan terrorist groups sitting in Afghanistan across the border and attacking us.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm not - I'll stipulate. I'm not saying at this moment that Pakistan is supporting the Taliban. I'm saying that you suggested that that message is being sent to the Taliban not to go too far, and I'm saying they don't seem to be listening.

YUSUF: What leverage do you think anybody can have when they feel, in their minds perhaps, that the U.S. has withdrawn and this is now fair game on the battlefield? You know, the leverage has to disappear. This is just logical.

INSKEEP: We should explain for people that a peaceful settlement would presumably involve Taliban participation in the government.

YUSUF: That is inevitable given the ground reality.

INSKEEP: They would need to act as legitimate political players. But in recent months, in addition to fighting a war, the Taliban have assassinated numerous civil society figures - journalists, judges, people from NGOs. Have they done anything to demonstrate that they could possibly be legitimate political players in that country?

YUSUF: That is not for me to decide, Steve. That is for Afghans to sit in a room and decide what parameters are acceptable to all the political actors who matter in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has so many groups now operating in governance vacuums - very difficult to say who's doing what. And this is the chaos that must be avoided at all costs. Also for U.S. legacy, frankly - I mean, 20 years of a war.

INSKEEP: How would you define human rights that would be essential for Afghans in any settlement or any peace?

YUSUF: I would define them just like any other civilized nation or country or people would. Now, only a Western lens is a misnomer. We've seen this for 20 years. There's been a lot of conversation. The only lens that matters is the Afghan lens. That's why I'm insisting, let's not impose, do this or do that. Let them sit and decide. And there's a history that Afghans have. When they sit together, they do come out with a workable solution, which includes all the rules and norms and context and environment that they live in. So I don't think we should give up.

INSKEEP: This is a question that I'm sure, as national security adviser for your country, you've had to consider. What is the worst-case scenario?

YUSUF: The worst-case scenario is protracted conflict in Afghanistan, where the world just decides they've had enough and leaves Afghans to another conflict and to fend for themselves. Nothing could be worse for Afghanistan. Nothing could be worse for Pakistan. And frankly, I will tell you, in the long run, nothing could be worse for the United States and global security.

INSKEEP: Twenty years ago, I was sent into Afghanistan as a reporter in late 2001. And as the Taliban fell - or seemed to fall at that time - one of my thoughts was, this country has had more than 20 years of war, and people so much want peace that there has to be peace because who would do 20 more years of war?

YUSUF: Yeah.

INSKEEP: There has been 20 more years of war.

YUSUF: Yeah.

INSKEEP: You've said this must end. But can you point to anything definite that has changed that would assure that it would end?

YUSUF: Look; nobody can assure or guarantee anything at this point. But you are now at 40 years, as you said. Please keep in mind, Pakistan has also suffered this war for 40 years - refugees, lives, economy. And I'll tell you, people are tired of violence, and they must be even more tired of violence in Afghanistan. And that's why the international community owes it to Afghanistan, owes it to Pakistan to make sure we make this work.

INSKEEP: Mr. Yusuf, thanks for your time.

YUSUF: It's been a pleasure.

INSKEEP: Moeed Yusuf, the national security adviser of Pakistan, is returning home from Washington today.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOM YORKE SONG, "IMPOSSIBLE KNOTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.