WASHINGTON: The US decision to fix a date for withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan also diminished Pakistan’s leverage on the Taliban, says Prime Minister Imran Khan.
In an interview to two senior editors of The New York Times’ Opinion pages, recorded on Wednesday, the prime minister sought a new bond with the US after Sept 11, 2021, when the United States plans to pull out all its forces from Afghanistan.
The interview was published on June 25, when US President Joe Biden had his first face-to-face meeting with his Afghan counterpart, Ashraf Ghani, at the White House.
Mr Khan also talked about his efforts to build a closer relationship with Afghanistan and improve relations with India, regretting that the current Indian government does not seem interested in normalising relations, perhaps a change of government in Delhi would help.
“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,” Mr Khan said. “They’re thinking that they won the war. And so therefore, our ability to influence them diminishes the stronger they feel.”
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The prime minister said that Pakistan used its leverage to persuade the Taliban to join the Afghan peace process. “They were refusing to have talks, so it was Pakistan who got them to talk to the United States.
Pakistan, he said, also played a key role in convincing Taliban leaders to talk to the government in Kabul. “Really, it was [us] pushing them, pressurising them to talk to the Afghan government. So that’s how far Pakistan has got,” he said.
In an introductory piece published with the interview, Yara Bayoumy, the world and national security editor, and Jyoti Thottam, the deputy Op-Ed editor, noted that “with US forces leaving Afghanistan by Sept 11, Pakistan faces two urgent questions: What strategic clout does it have now? Where does it fit in the great power confrontation between the United States and China?”
They pointed out that while Mr Biden met President Ghani, he “has yet to have a conversation with Mr Khan. The interviewers also noted that in a recent interview with Axios, Mr Khan made “it clear that he would not accept CIA bases in the country for missions in Afghanistan”.
So, what’s the future of the US-Pakistan relationship?
Civilised relationship with US
Mr Khan recalled that Pakistan has had a closer relationship with the United States than other nations in the region, such as India, and was a US partner in the war against terrorism, an argument used by previous Pakistani rulers as well without much success.
“Now, after the US leaves Afghanistan, basically Pakistan would want a civilised relationship, which you have between nations, and we would like to improve our trading relationship with the US,” the prime minister replied.
Asked to elaborate his concept of a civilised relationship, he said he was seeking relations like the one that existed “between the US and Britain, or between US and India right now. So, a relationship which is evenhanded”.
“Unfortunately, the relationship during the war on terror was a bit lopsided,” he said, adding, “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 cost Pakistan a lot … 70,000 Pakistanis died, and over $150 billion were lost to the economy because there were suicide bombings and bombs going on all over the country.”
The main problem with this lopsided relationship was that “Pakistani governments tried to deliver what they were not capable of,” and it led to a “mistrust between the two countries”, Mr Khan said. “And people in Pakistan felt they paid a heavy, heavy price for this relationship. And the US thought Pakistan had not done enough.”
The prime minister said that his government wanted the future relationship to be based on trust and common objectives, including a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.
Asked if Pakistan will continue to have any strategic relevance to the US after the pullout, Mr Khan said: “I don’t know, really. I haven’t thought about it in that way, that Pakistan should have some strategic relevance to the US.”
Pakistan, he said, was a country of 220 million people, in a strategically sensitive area, with “one of the biggest markets on one side (India), and then China on [the] other side”.
Pakistan also had access to the energy corridor, Central Asia and Iran, and that’s why he believed his country “strategically placed for the future in terms of economics,” Mr Khan said.
The prime minister said he could not predict the future of the military and security relationship between Pakistan and the US. “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,” he stressed.
Leverage on Taliban
Asked if Pakistan was still using its leverage with the Taliban to move the peace talks towards a deal, Mr Khan said: “Pakistan has used the maximum leverage it could on the Taliban.”
Does it mean that Pakistan has no more leverage left?
The prime minister said Pakistan has been emphasising to the Taliban that they should not go for a military victory because it would only lead to a protracted civil war. And since the Taliban are primarily a Pashtun movement, this will have two effects: Another influx of refugees into Pakistan and upset Pakistan’s efforts to lift its economy through trade, he explained.
‘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.
The prime minister said that during a visit to Kabul earlier this year, he “gave our full support to the Afghan government, telling them we will do everything for this peace settlement”.
Despite constant communication between the civilian and military leaderships of the countries, “there is still a feeling in the Afghan government that Pakistan could do more, which I have to say is very disappointing,” he added.
What can Pakistan do to stabilise Afghanistan?
“Let me assure you, we will do everything except use military action against the Taliban. I mean, we will do everything up to that,” Mr Khan said, adding: “All sections of our society have decided that Pakistan will take no military action.”
The prime minister pointed out that there was never any border between Afghanistan and Pakistan but now Pakistan has fenced almost 90 per cent of the border 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, … (but) Pakistan does not want to get into, number one, conflict. Secondly, we do not want another influx of refugees.”
Will you recognise the Taliban takeover?
“Pakistan will only recognise a government which is chosen by the people of Afghanistan, whichever government they choose,” the prime minister said.
Would a different government in India make a difference?
“When I assumed office, the first thing I did was I made this approach to Prime Minister Modi (to seek) a normal, civilized trading relationship. … We tried but didn’t get anywhere.”
“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.”
Status quo remains on Kashmir a win for India?
“I think it’s a disaster for India because it will just mean that this conflict festers on and on … and (prevents) any relationship — normal relationship — between Pakistan and India,” Mr Khan responded.
Choosing between the US and China:
“I find it very, very odd — why would the US and China become these great rivals? … Why do we have to choose sides — either it’s the US or China?” said the prime minister while insisting that Pakistan sought good relations with both the US and China.
Mr Khan said the US assumption that India would be the bulwark against China was wrong. “I think it would be detrimental for India because India’s trade with China is going to be beneficial for both India and China.” Pakistan, he said, was “watching the scenario unfold and with a bit of anxiety”.
Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2021