Former ambassador explains the nuances of Pakistan and its neighboring countries

Former U.S. Ambassador Robin Raphel discusses the past, present, and future of Pakistan and its neighbors
Former U.S. Ambassador Robin Raphel discusses the past, present, and future of Pakistan and its neighbors Credit: Mary Szmolko

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – To kick off the annual U.S. Army War College International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise, the School of International Affairs hosted former U.S. Ambassador, diplomat, and CIA Analyst Robin Raphel, an expert on Pakistan affairs, as she presented “Pakistan and Its Troublesome Neighbors.” Her talk, co-sponsored by the Penn State Center for Global Affairs, was held in the Lewis Katz Building on Nov. 11.

Raphel began by giving her background and history with the South Asian region itself, which dated back to her first trip to Afghanistan in 1971. She worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the area before joining the State Department.

“I was and am fascinated by this part of the world,” said Raphel, “but I have to say, it’s complicated.”

Raphel went on to explain that in 1947, Pakistan was culturally, socially, and technologically ahead of most Asian countries; now it is very much behind them. Its power shortage, struggling health services, and an education system that cannot keep up with its booming population that has tripled in the last 30 years are largely to blame.

Additionally, Pakistan faces the fact that it has become a safe haven for violent extremist groups like al-Qaida and the Taliban. The rugged territory of the country lends itself to these organizations, and though the Pakistani military is trying to force them out, it is not an easy task.

According to Raphel, who worked in Pakistan as assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs during the Clinton administration, and later, under Secretary Hillary Clinton as senior adviser on Pakistan, the state of the country is also a result of its location. It has been deeply affected by the years of war in Afghanistan. This conflict has resulted in an influx of drugs, economic pressures, and the increasing problem of domestic terrorism. India, a far more stable neighbor, isn’t considered an ally, as tensions over the territorial dispute of Kashmir remain. This diminishes trade and increases hostility between the countries.

Raphel noted the core interests of the U.S. in working within Pakistan: preventing the area from being a safe haven for terrorists, nuclear weapons containment, and regional stability. She also noted that in diplomacy, it is imperative to look at the issues from the point of view of the other entity, in this instance, Pakistan. Pakistan wants a solid relationship with the U.S., trade access, recognition for its role in the war on terror, more balance in American South Asia policy, and a U.S. commitment to staying in Afghanistan.

Though the headlines appear very negative, Raphel believes the overall prognosis for Pakistan is hopeful.

“Reality is more nuanced. Negative perceptions move behind the curve. In my opinion, they will muddle through until they are able to achieve forward progress. They have resources and have managed two democratic transitions in recent years,” she said. She also noted that the military is now on a shorter leash, thanks to social media, and parliament has developed a national action plan that government officials are actually getting behind.

“The people are resilient and the youth are entrepreneurial. They can overcome, and it will be better for everyone, including the U.S.,” said Raphel.