Prime Minister Imran Khan, during an address delivered at the United States Institute of Peace on Tuesday, impressed upon the audience that Pakistan seeks a "dignified relationship with the US" which is not curtailed by the securing or withdrawal of aid.
"I would like to have a relationship between the two countries of mutual trust. I would like to have a relationship as equals, of friendship. Not as it has been before [...] Pakistan wanting aid from the US and then for aid it is expected to do certain things.
"The reason why I am happy leaving the US this time is that we now have a relationship based on mutual interest, which is peace in Afghanistan.”
The premier said that he had been asked about whether there would be a request for funds to which he had said: "I hate the idea of asking for funds. Aid has been one of the biggest curses for my country. What it has done is it has created the dependency syndrome."
"Countries rise because of self respect and self esteem. No country rises because of begging and borrowing for money," he added.
He expressed confidence that there was "convergence between the United States and Pakistan" when it came to recognising that there is no military solution to deal with the war in Afghanistan.
He said that he viewed the dynamic to be different now, as both sides were finally looking at things through the same lens.
"The Pakistan Army was fighting but they [the US] thought we are not doing enough [...] we had gone out of our way. But this time, we are all on the same page that only a political settlement through dialogue will work," said the prime minister.
In January this year, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had emphasised a new "sustainable" strategy of the United States for fighting terrorism which seeks to end long, drawn-out wars
“President Trump very much wants to end these long, drawn-out [wars] — 17 years now in Afghanistan,” the chief US diplomat had said.
In today's discussion with Nancy Lindbord, the president of the United States Institute of Peace, PM Imran expressed hope that a political settlement to the Afghan war can be reached and that the relationship between the United States and Pakistan had great potential after this visit.
When asked what makes things different now in the relationship between the two countries compared to the past, the premier said: "I always felt [previously] that the relationship was never multi-pronged, always transactional."
The premier, providing a backdrop to the circumstances that led to the present situation in Afghanistan, said that the 'jihadists' had been convinced to fight against the Soviets and once the 'jihad' was over, the US packed up and left and "we were slapped with sanctions".
"We were left with four million Afghan refugees [...] a number of militant groups created to fight the Soviets, all dressed up and nowhere to go, heroin, drugs — which at some point were used to pay for the fighting," he continued, to highlight the scale of the fallout after the war had ended.
He said that after 9/11 Pakistan again joined the US [in the fight against terrorism].
"I only had one seat in parliament. When Gen Musharraf consulted us [on whether we should join the war] I opposed it and said we should stay neutral."
He then went on to explain, why he felt it would have been in Pakistan's best interest to remain neutral.
"We had created these 'jihadi' groups in the 80s. We had indoctrinated them in the idea of 'jihad'. That foreign occupation in Afghanistan [...] it was a religious duty to fight them. So all these foreign groups, including Al Qaeda had arrived in Pakistan."
"Now comes 9/11. And the US invades Afghanistan. And now we are trying to tell the same groups, who had close links with the Pakistan Army — because they were created by the Pakistan Army — now we are telling them because the good guys are there, its no longer 'jihad'."
"Now obviously, a lot of them turned against the Pakistan Army because the Pakistan Army was then trying to neutralise them."
The premier said that the years that followed were "the worst time in our history".
"These groups turned against the Pakistan Army and the State of Pakistan. And not only that, there were linkages between these groups and the Pakistan security forces because they had created them.
"We had insider attacks, the GHQ was attacked, the generals were killed, the ISI headquarters were attacked. The Army at one point could not go into the cities in military clothes or with military cars. It was that bad," said PM Imran, as he asserted his view of why Pakistan should have never gotten involved.
"The second thing was the tribal areas. We should never have sent our Army into the tribal areas.
"The tribal area per capita was the most weaponised area in the world," he said, pausing to provide a brief history of the region that had been left autonomous post-British era and that had "lived by its own rules".
"In 2004, under pressure from the US, the Pakistan Army went into the tribal areas to flush out Al Qaeda. What happened was, after Tora Bora in Afghanistan, a few of the Al Qaeda moved down into our tribal areas which were semi-autonomous. When they sent the Army in [...] you know armies are not meant to go into civilian areas.
"Whenever you send your army into civilian areas there will always be human rights abuses because there is no [enemy] army there, there are just guerillas operating from villages.
"The collateral damage created what became the Pakistani Taliban. There was no Pakistani Taliban [group] before," he said.
"In my opinion, we should have stayed neutral. That way we would have control over these militant groups and we could have, in our own time, neutralised them," he added, before going on to say: "But because we became a part of the US war, they turned against Pakistan."
He said that what followed was a watershed moment in Pakistani politics, recounting the 2014 Army Public School massacre in which 150 school children were slaughtered by the TTP (Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan) — the Pakistani faction of the Taliban.
"There was a reaction [to the APS tragedy] within Pakistan. All the political parties signed the NAP (National Action Plan) and we all decided that we will never allow any militant groups to operate within Pakistan."
The premier said that because there had been such a sizable presence of these groups [estimating them to be around 30,000-strong] that had obtained "training in some theatre — Afghanistan or Kashmir", there had been a challenge which no one was willing to take previously.
"Prior to our government coming into power, past governments did not have the political will [...] we were the first government to start disarming militant groups.
"We have taken over their institutes, their seminaries, we have [placed] administrators there. For the first time we have decided there will be no armed militias inside our country."
Lindbord then talked about the ongoing Afghan peace process and the possibility of a breakthrough and asked whether the Pakistani government is able and willing to make the commitments to help move the dialogues forward, especially if the Taliban and the government are not able to get a meeting organised.
To this, the premier responded by saying: "The fear among the Pakistan military establishment was always that there would be a two-front situation. So there would be the eastern front, which is India, and if Afghanistan was also in the Indian sphere of influence then Pakistan would be sandwiched between the two."
He said owing to this worry, the military always wanted what it called "strategic depth".
"But this has changed. Today there is no concept in Pakistan of strategic depth. Because we feel that by interfering in Afghanistan, in order to secure the strategic depth, we have actually done a lot of damage to our own country. And for no rhyme or reason we have become partisan in Afghanistan's internal affairs.
He said that in the past there was always this impression that Pakistan Army is an independent entity and governments have no control over it.
"I can sit here and tell you that as I speak, the Pakistan Army is exactly behind the government's programme. Whatever policies from day one, whether it was peace with India, they were behind us," he said, pausing to mention that when he had decided to release the Indian pilot captured by the Army, they supported his decision.
"There is no difference between the policies of Pakistan's security forces or the policies of Pakistan's democratic government."
He said that the Afghans should be "left to decide what they want, what sort of government they want and we should facilitate the peace process".
"So this is the big difference now. We are all on the same page...and fortunately the US is on the same page [...] 19 years of conflict and this could have gone on. Thank God for President Trump. This could have gone on for another 19 years without any result."
Responding to concerns about freedom of the press in Pakistan, the prime minister said that he had spent 18 summers of his life in Britain where he had noted that the media is very open and free.
"The Pakistan media, in my opinion, is even freer than the British media [...] it is not just free but sometimes out of control," said the prime minister.
He went on to say that in Britain no media would have published the kind of remarks that the Pakistani media had since he had come into power.
"A prime minister of a country and this man sits on television and says he is 'getting divorced tomorrow'," remarked PM Imran, referring to rumours that had circulated in the media a few months ago about the premier’s allegedly rocky relationship with First Lady Bushra Bibi.
"In the olden days, this guy would have been beaten up. In Nawaz Sharif's time, he had journalists beaten up. Asif Zardari — people were petrified of him. People would disappear," he said.
The premier said he, on the other hand, had gone through the legal channels to take action.
"So what we need, is to control the media, not through the government but through a media watchdog.
"They reported wrongly that the IMF had said that the rupee would fall, to a number they quoted. There was a run on the rupee. Who would do that [anywhere else in the world]?"
He said that the government was on the one hand struggling to revive the economy and on the other hand the media was falsely reporting such things and causing a run on the rupee.
"I feel very strongly we will strengthen the media watchdog. It is not censorship. There are 70-80 channels in Pakistan. Only three reported they were having some problems."
He said that the media would have to be more accountable and will have to answer for their source of income.
"Even if we ask them about taxes, they say ‘this is against freedom of expression’."
When asked what role Pakistan can play in calming the rising tensions with Iran without ruining the relations it has with other countries, the prime minister said that an offer had already been made to Iran for Pakistan to play a role and until recently, Iran was receptive to the idea, but now seemed "desperate".
He urged all the countries to avoid pushing Iran into a conflict.
"I'm not sure all the countries realise the gravity of the situation if there is a conflict with Iran [...] This is not going to be the same as Iraq. This could be much, much, worse. It will have grave, adverse consequences for our country [as well].
"It could unleash terrorism where Al Qaeda would be forgotten," warned PM Imran.