Prime minister says Islamabad’s leverage over Taliban has diminished due to Washington announcing a timetable for its exit from Afghanistan
Pakistan wants a “civilized” relationship with the U.S. that is “evenhanded” like Washington’s existing ties with the U.K. and India, Prime Minister Imran Khan has told The New York Times.
In an interview to two senior editors of the U.S. publication—recorded on Wednesday and published on Friday—Khan regretted the lopsided relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Recalling that 70,000 Pakistanis had been killed, and economic losses of over $150 million incurred, due to Islamabad’s participation in the war on terror, he said the U.S. still continued to expect “more” from Pakistan.
“Unfortunately, Pakistani governments tried to deliver what they were not capable of,” he said. “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 U.S.—I mean, our objectives in Afghanistan are exactly the same today,” he added.
To a question on whether Pakistan would retain its strategic importance to the U.S. after it pulls out of Afghanistan, Khan said he had “not thought about it in that way” and was not yet clear on the future of bilateral ties related to military and security concerns. “Post the U.S. 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,” he said. “And I’m sure neither does the U.S., after it leaves, want the country going up in flames after spending, God knows, $1 or $2 trillion. So that’s a common objective,” he added.
Leverage over Taliban
Discussing Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace talks, and his fear of a civil war in Afghanistan, Khan claimed Islamabad had already used the maximum leverage it could to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. “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, the 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,” he said.
To a question on whether this meant Pakistan no longer had any sway over the Taliban, Khan said it had urged the insurgents to seek a political solution rather than outright conflict following the U.S. withdrawal. “And the country that would be affected by civil war, after Afghanistan, would be Pakistan. We would be affected because there are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan,” he said, adding that it could result in a new influx of refugees and hamper plans for trade.
“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,” he said. He also stressed that Pakistan would only recognize a future Afghan government if it were chosen by the people of Afghanistan.
To another question on whether Pak-Indo ties would improve if Narendra Modi were no longer in power, Khan reiterated claims that he “knows India better than all the other Pakistanis,” as he had played cricket there. “It’s [cricket] almost a religion in both countries,” he added.
He recalled that he had approached Modi after assuming the premiership, and conveyed a desire 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 countries,” he said. “So we tried. Didn’t get anywhere. I think that it is a peculiar ideology of the [Hindu nationalist] 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,” he added in a marked contrast of earlier claims.
In April 2019, shortly after coming to power, Khan told a select group of journalists that he believed that if the BJP came into power, “some kind of settlement on Kashmir could be reached.” Just four months later, India—under newly re-elected P.M. Modi—abrogated Article 370 and revoked the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir.
To a question, the prime minister claimed it would be a “disaster for India” if Kashmir’s status quo were not restored to its situation prior to Aug. 5, 2019. “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,” he said.
The China equation
Discussing Pakistan’s relationship with China, and how it affects both the U.S. and India, he said that he found it “very odd” that China and the U.S. would become 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,” he said, adding that Pakistan had no reason to pick sides and wanted positive ties with everyone.
“China is the country that came to Pakistan’s help. And obviously, we’ve had a long relationship with China,” he said. “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,” he said, adding that he had a “bit of anxiety” at seeing the worsening ties between Washington, Beijing and Delhi.