WASHINGTON — DURING the Afghanistan war, when it was a conduit for arms and supplies for the United States-backed Afghan rebels, Pakistan achieved a position of immense strategic importance as a buffer against Soviet expansion in south Central Asia. In the aftermath of the cold war, Pakistani leaders dream of a new strategic role, this time as a force for economic change and political stability in the region.
Unlike Iran, which has used religion as a wedge to gain influence among the mostly Islamic states in the area, Pakistan's ambitions are mainly economic. But beyond the lure of trade and economic ties with the newly independent Central Asian republics, Pakistan hopes to be a force for moderation, says Pakistan's foreign secretary, Sheharyar Khan.
"Pakistan's importance will be recognized because ours is a stabilizing and tranquilizing role and not in converting anyone to anything," Mr. Khan said in a Monitor interview in Washington last week.
"We have a traditional linkage with the Muslims [of the region]," he says. "Therefore we have a nexus with these states and the sooner we develop contacts ... the better it is because it will help them become more independent of Russia."
According to news reports, Iran has been building mosques and sending religious teachers to revive Islam in the Central Asian republics that have been under communist rule for decades.
For its part, Pakistan is interested in commerce: hydroelectric power, gas pipelines, and other projects in the former Soviet enclaves.
"It's a purely economic orientation," Khan says. "We're not trying to sell any ideology, political or religious, to these countries."
One leading US expert on the region, Shireen Hunter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says: "Understandably Pakistan is trying to take advantage of the current tensions between Iran and the West, and Iran and Turkey, by projecting itself as the best option."
Pakistan is promoting itself in the region as a moderate state with Islamic traditions, close ties to the West, and experience in democracy.
While in Washington Khan spoke of two issues that bear heavily on political stability in Central Asia: nuclear weapons and Afghanistan.
* He talked with State Department officials about proposals to limit the spread of nuclear weapons in the region. In separate meetings, India and Pakistan have now conferred twice with department officials regarding implementation of a Bush administration proposal to convene five-power talks on the issue that would also include Russia, China, and the US.
"There has been progress and we don't want to scoff at it, but it's a very long gestation period," Khan says.
* During the Afghanistan war 3.5 million Afghans fled across the border into Pakistan. In what Khan describes as "the largest organized movement of refugees known to mankind," 1.5 million of them have returned home within the past four months.
"At the rate they're going, I would say a majority will return if there is peace," Khan says. Whether there is peace will depend on whether it is possible for the returning Afghans to pick up where they left off before the 1979 Soviet invasion.
And that, he says, will depend on whether the wealthy nations provide the assistance needed to alleviate the economic hardships that could discourage the refugees from returning home, and that nourish the forces of extremism in Afghanistan.
It is imperative to maintain the peace, Khan says of the country he refers to as the gateway of Central Asia.
"The world is waiting on the fence to see what kind of regime will take control in Afghanistan; only then do [outside donors] want to provide aid," Khan says. "Our advice is to help them now to settle and rebuild."