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PM Khan to NYT: Pakistan will not take military action against Taliban

In an interview with New York Times, PM Imran Khan said Pakistan will only recognize a government that is chosen by the people of Afghanistan.

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Pakistan will do everything to promote a political settlement of the long-running conflict in Afghanistan, except the use of military action against the Taliban, Prime Minister Imran Khan said in an interview with an influential American newspaper.

“I mean, we will do everything up to that. All sections of our society have decided that Pakistan will take no military action,” he said in a conversation with two New York Times journalists in a video call.

Speaking to the prime minister were Yara Bayoumy, the Times’ world and national security editor, and Jyoti Thottam, the newspaper’s deputy Op-Ed editor.

The interview was published ahead of US President Joe Biden’s meeting with top Afghan leaders – President Ashraf Ghani and Chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah – at the White House later Friday.

Read more: Can a democratic government in Kabul save Afghanistan?

American officials have said they will discuss the US troops’ withdrawal amid a surge in fighting between the Afghan forces and the Taliban across the country.

Imran Khan said Pakistan had used the “maximum leverage” it could on the Taliban to bring them to negotiating table with the United States and then with the Afghan government.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “there is still a feeling in the Afghan government that Pakistan could do more, which I have to say is very disappointing to us when they blame us for being unable to, after so many years, to come to some sort of a settlement.”

Replying to a question, the prime minister said Pakistan had been in constant communication with the Afghan government at different levels.

Asked whether his government would recognize the Taliban if they carried a full military takeover in Afghanistan, the prime minister said, “Pakistan will only recognize a government which is chosen by the people of Afghanistan, whichever government they choose.”

In the wide-ranging interview, Prime Minister Imran Khan also discussed US-Pakistan relations, saying, “Basically Pakistan would want a civilized relationship, which you have between nations, and we would like to improve our trading relationship with the US,” following the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

Asked to elaborate on the ties with Washington, he said, “You know, say between the US and Britain, or actually between US and India right now. So a relationship which is even-handed. You know, unfortunately, the relationship (with US) was a bit lopsided during this war on terror.”

During that period, the prime minister said the US felt that they were giving aid to Pakistan, they felt that Pakistan then had to do US’s bidding.

“And what Pakistan did in terms of trying to do the US bidding actually cost Pakistan a lot in human lives. Seventy thousand Pakistanis died, and over $150 billion were lost to the economy because there were suicide bombings and bombs going on all over the country.

Read more: How India lost Afghanistan to Pakistan?

That’s where the problem began. The US kept expecting more from Pakistan. And unfortunately, Pakistani governments tried to deliver what they were not capable of,” he said.

“So there was this mistrust between the two countries. And people in Pakistan felt they paid a heavy, heavy price for this relationship. And the US thought Pakistan had not done enough. So in that sense, it was a lopsided relationship.

“What we want in the future is a relationship based on trust and common objectives. That’s actually what we have right now with the US – I mean, our objectives in Afghanistan are exactly the same today.”

About military and security relationship with the US going forward, he said, “Post the US withdrawal, I don’t know what sort of military relationship it will be.

“But right now, the relationship should be based on this common objective that there is a political solution in Afghanistan before the United States leaves, because Pakistan doesn’t want a civil war, a bloody civil war in Afghanistan.

Read more: No peace in sight for Afghanistan?

And I’m sure neither does the US, after it leaves, it wants the country going up in flames after spending, God knows, $1 or $2 trillion. So that’s a common objective.”

In the interview, the prime minister reminded that Pakistan had also opposed that military action against the Taliban, but then the United States pressured Pakistan to send its troops into the tribal areas, to flush out maybe a few hundred Al-Qaeda [militants] who had come into Pakistan from Afghanistan after [the Battle of] Tora Bora.

“Remember, the whole border [was] completely open. There was never any border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is called the Durand Line. Now, we are fencing it, and almost 90 percent of the border, we’ve fenced now.

“What if [the] Taliban try to take over Afghanistan through [the] military? Then we will seal the border because now we can, because we have fenced our border, which was previously [open] because Pakistan does not want to get into, number one, conflict. Secondly, we do not want another influx of refugees.”

Asked about the prospects of relationship with India, he said he had tried with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to improve relations with India, but did not get anywhere.

“I think that it is a peculiar ideology of the (Hindu nationalist group) RSS, which Narendra Modi belongs to, which just came up against a brick wall.”

The prime minister agreed with the correspondent that had there been another Indian leadership, “I think we would have had a good relationship with them. And yes, we would have resolved all our differences through dialogue.”

Read more: How one after another super power lost in Afghanistan?

Questioned if the status quo remains on Kashmir, could it be considered a win for India, Imran Khan said, “I think it’s a disaster for India because it will just mean that this conflict festers on and on. And so as long as it festers, it’s going to stop there being any relationship – normal relationship – between Pakistan and India.”

Replying to a question, Prime Minister Imran Khan said the world would really benefit if the two economic giants – China and the US, really got along and traded with each other.

“Secondly, why do we have to choose sides – either it’s the US or China? I think we should have a relationship with everyone. China has been very good to us, in the sense that after the war on terror, or during the war on terror, we took a real battering in this country,” he said.

“Our debt went up, which happens when a country is in a war situation. Business activity freezes. The provinces and the tribal areas were devastated by this war,” he said.

“So China is the country that came to Pakistan’s help. And obviously we’ve had a long relationship with China.

“So number one, I do not see why the US should think that India is going to be this bulwark against China. If India takes on this role, I think it would be detrimental for India because India’s trade with China is going to be beneficial for both India and China.”

Read more: Re-engaging with the US: Should Pakistan be careful?

Here is the transcript of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s interview as published in The New York Times:

Yara Bayoumy: This is obviously an important time in Pakistan and in the region. The US military involvement in Afghanistan gave Pakistan a lot of strategic clout with the United States. Now that the Americans are pulling out, what do you see as the future of that relationship?

Prime Minister Imran Khan: Pakistan has always had a closer relationship with the United States than, say, India, which [is] our neighbour. And then after 9/11, Pakistan again opted to join the US war on terror.

Now, after the US leaves Afghanistan, basically Pakistan would want a civilized relationship, which you have between nations, and we would like to improve our trading relationship with the US.

Bayoumy: Could you elaborate more about what you mean by a civilized relationship?

Imran Khan: You know, say between the US and Britain, or actually between US and India right now. So a relationship which is evenhanded. You know, unfortunately, the relationship was a bit lopsided during this war on terror.

It was a lopsided relationship because [the] US felt that they were giving aid to Pakistan, they felt that Pakistan then had to do US’s bidding.

And what Pakistan did in terms of trying to do the US bidding actually cost Pakistan a lot in human lives. Seventy thousand Pakistanis died, and over $150 billion were lost to the economy because there were suicide bombings and bombs going on all over the country.

That’s where the problem began. The US kept expecting more from Pakistan. And unfortunately, Pakistani governments tried to deliver what they were not capable of.

So there was this mistrust between the two countries. And people in Pakistan felt they paid a heavy, heavy price for this relationship. And the US thought Pakistan had not done enough. So in that sense, it was a lopsided relationship.

What we want in the future is a relationship based on trust and common objectives. That’s actually what we have right now with the US — I mean, our objectives in Afghanistan are exactly the same today.

Jyoti Thottam: But do you think that Pakistan will continue to have any strategic relevance to the US once the US pulls out of Afghanistan?

Imran Khan: I don’t know, really. I haven’t thought about it in that way, that Pakistan should have some strategic relevance to the US. I mean, states really have relationships based on common interests.

And Pakistan is a country of 220 million people, a young population, in a sense strategically placed for the future if our relationship with India improves at some point, which I am an optimist. I hope it will.

So we have one of the biggest markets on one side of Pakistan, and then China on [another] other side.

So two of the biggest world markets. And then the energy corridor, Central Asia, Iran, if that relationship improves between the US. So Pakistan, in that sense, is strategically placed for the future in terms of economics.

Bayoumy: How do you specifically see the military and security relationship going forward?

Imran Khan: I don’t know. Post the US withdrawal, I don’t know what sort of military relationship it will be. But right now, the relationship should be based on this common objective that there is a political solution in Afghanistan before the United States leaves, because Pakistan doesn’t want a civil war, a bloody civil war in Afghanistan.

And I’m sure neither does the US, after it leaves, it wants the country going up in flames after spending, God knows, $1 or $2 trillion. So that’s a common objective.

Bayoumy: Speaking of Afghanistan, Pakistan has played a big role in the intra-Afghan peace talks. You’ve used your leverage with the Taliban, as well.

In the last few weeks, we have been seeing violence increase across the country. How worried are you about a civil war in Afghanistan, and are you using your leverage with the Taliban to try and get these peace talks toward a deal?

Imran Khan: Well, firstly, Pakistan has used the maximum leverage it could on the Taliban. What was the maximum leverage? Basically, Pakistan was the country that had recognized Taliban, one of three countries after 1996.

Given that the United States gave a date of withdrawal, from then onward, our leverage diminished on the Taliban.

And the reason is that the moment the United States gave a date of exit, Taliban basically claimed victory. They’re thinking that they won the war. And so therefore, our ability to influence them diminishes the stronger they feel.

So the leverage we used was to bring them on — they were refusing to have talks, so it was Pakistan who got them to talk to the United States. And secondly, it was us pressurizing them, and really, it was [us] very toughly pushing them, pressurizing them to talk to the Afghan government. So that’s how far Pakistan has got.

Thottam: So given that long history with Afghanistan and recognizing the Taliban, are you saying that Pakistan has no more leverage left? What can you do now?

Imran Khan: Well, Pakistan has been emphasizing to the Taliban that they should not go for a military victory because it’s not going to happen, because if they go for an all-out military victory, it would mean a protracted civil war.

And the country that would be affected by a civil war, after Afghanistan, would be Pakistan. We would be affected because there are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan.

And since the Taliban is primarily a Pashtun movement, this will have two effects. One, we are scared that this will be another influx of refugees into Pakistan. Already, the country has found it very difficult to cope with three million Afghan refugees. And so there will be another influx into Pakistan.

Secondly, our vision for the future is lifting our economy and trading through Afghanistan into Central Asia. We have signed very good trade deals with the Central Asian republics, but we can only go there through Afghanistan. If there is a civil war, all that goes down the drain.

Bayoumy: Are you also talking to the Kabul government about the situation right now? What happens if the Taliban take over Afghanistan by force?

Imran Khan: I paid a visit to President Ghani earlier this year and sort of gave our full support to the Afghan government, telling them we will do everything for this peace settlement.

There’s frequent exchanges between our intelligence agencies and the Afghan intelligence agencies, and between our army chief and the Afghan president and their army chief. So there has been constant communication between us.

Unfortunately, there is still a feeling in the Afghan government that Pakistan could do more, which I have to say is very disappointing to us when they blame us for being unable to, after so many years, to come to some sort of a settlement.

Let me assure you, we will do everything except use military action against the Taliban. I mean, we will do everything up to that.

All sections of our society have decided that Pakistan will take no military action. We unfortunately — and I have to say, I opposed this military action — the United States pressured Pakistan to send its troops into the tribal areas, to flush out maybe a few hundred Al Qaeda [militants] who had come into Pakistan from Afghanistan after [the Battle of] Tora Bora.

Remember, the whole border [was] completely open. There was never any border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is called the Durand Line. Now, we are fencing it, and almost 90 percent of the border, we’ve fenced now.

What if [the] Taliban try to take over Afghanistan through [the] military? Then we will seal the border, because now we can, because we have fenced our border, which was previously [open], because Pakistan does not want to get into, number one, conflict. Secondly, we do not want another influx of refugees.

Bayoumy: Will you recognize the Taliban if they do carry out a full military takeover in Afghanistan?

Imran Khan: Pakistan will only recognize a government which is chosen by the people of Afghanistan, whichever government they choose.

Bayoumy: On India: Do you think a different government in India than the one that exists right now, would make a difference to your relationship?

Imran Khan: You know, probably out of all the Pakistanis, I know India better than all of them. I have had love and respect from India [more] than anyone because cricket is a big sport. It’s almost religion in both the countries.

So when I assumed office, the first thing I did was I made this approach to Prime Minister Modi and said that, “Look, my main objective for coming to power is to alleviate poverty in Pakistan.” And the best way would be if India and Pakistan had a normal, civilized trading relationship. It would benefit both the countries.

So we tried. Didn’t get anywhere. I think that it is a peculiar ideology of the (Hindu nationalist group) RSS, which Narendra Modi belongs to, which just came up against a brick wall.

And therefore the answer to your question is yes. Had there been another Indian leadership, I think we would have had a good relationship with them. And yes, we would have resolved all our differences through dialogue.

Bayoumy: So if the status quo remains on Kashmir, would you consider that a win for India?

Imran Khan: I think it’s a disaster for India because it will just mean that this conflict festers on and on. And so as long as it festers, it’s going to stop there being any relationship — normal relationship — between Pakistan and India.

Bayoumy: What we’re seeing is a generally very close relationship between the US and India, one that is also increasing mainly because the US sees India as a check in the region against China’s rising influence. You have gone to a lot of lengths to deepen your relationship with the Chinese. So doesn’t that put Pakistan at irreconcilable odds with both the US and India?

Imran Khan: Well, firstly I must say I find it very, very odd that — why would the US and China, become these great rivals? It makes no sense because the world would really benefit if the two giants, economic giants, really got along and traded with each other. So it would be a benefit for all of us.

Secondly, why do we have to choose sides — either it’s the US or China? I think we should have a relationship with everyone. China has been very good to us, in the sense that after the war on terror, or during the war on terror, we took a real battering in this country.

Our debt went up, which happens when a country is in a war situation. Business activity freezes. The provinces and the tribal areas were devastated by this war.

So China is the country that came to Pakistan’s help. And obviously we’ve had a long relationship with China.

So number one, I do not see why the U.S. should think that India is going to be this bulwark against China. If India takes on this role, I think it would be detrimental for India because India’s trade with China is going to be beneficial for both India and China.

So I’m just watching the scenario unfold and with a bit of anxiety.

Courtesy: APP

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