PRIME Minister Imran Khan speaks to a delegation of Pak-Afghan Youth Forum during an interactive session.
PRIME Minister Imran Khan speaks to a delegation of Pak-Afghan Youth Forum during an interactive session.

• Says Ghani was offered cooperation to check fighters’ movement
• Denies existence of Taliban shura in Pakistan
• Calls for return of refugees
• Policy of strategic depth has been abandoned

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan has said his government can do everything to prod the Afghan Taliban to end violence and agree to a negotiated settlement of the dispute in their country except for coercive action against them on Pakistani territory.

In a wide-ranging talk with a youth delegation from Afghanistan, which included media persons, on Thursday, Mr Khan said: “We will do everything but we will not use military force anymore in Pakistan.”

He said that in his meetings with Afghan leaders he had gotten the impression that Kabul wanted Pakistan to take some sort of military action against the pro-Taliban and Taliban leaders living here.

Referring to Kabul’s complaint about the families of Taliban leaders residing in Pakistan, he said they had been helpful in making the insurgents negotiate a deal with the United States.

“What is Pakistan supposed to do with their (Taliban) families … if you put them in jail or if you take action against them that leverage goes,” he maintained.

He denied the existence of the alleged Taliban ‘Shuras’ in Pakistan and said the Americans too had been saying the same, but they never came up with proof of their existence.

“We have consistently asked the Afghan government to tell us where these Shuras are and where the hubs are,” he said, but did not rule out the possibility of Taliban leaders meeting in sprawling refugee camps.

Pakistan is still hosting nearly 3 million Afghan refugees.

“The thing is if the Taliban meet within the Afghan refugee camps as I said one of the refugee camps is [housing] over 500,000 people, there’s another with100,000 people and so on so it’s not easy for Pakistan to tell who’s coming where,” Mr Khan said, adding that it wasn’t either possible to go into the refugee camps after the pro-Taliban elements.

He recalled the US pressure for action in North Waziristan, which Pakistan finally undertook in 2014, and noted that it did not have any meaningful impact on the situation in Afghanistan.

The prime minister disclosed that he had offered Afghan President Ashraf Ghani cooperation over checking the flow of fighters into Afghanistan.

“President Ghani felt that we should try and stop the people going across. We told them that we can have a joint inspection. You tell us where people are crossing we will take action,” he said.

But at the same time, Mr Khan underscored limitations on keeping a check on the fighters going into Afghanistan because of very high frequency of movement of people between the two countries. Nearly 25,000-30,000 people cross border daily.

“How is Pakistan supposed to check who is going over there to fight or not,” he questioned.

The prime minister, therefore, underscored the importance of repatriation of refugees.

“Pakistan has consistently said that if the Afghan refugees go back to Afghanistan then hold us responsible,” he stressed.

He pointed out the ambitious project for fencing of 2,600km porous border, which is nearing completion.

Mr Khan observed that Pakistan’s priorities have changed with regards to Afghanistan. He said in 1990s Pakistan pursued the policy of strategic depth and kept “favourites” in Afghanistan because of Indian influence there, but now its priority was to have peace there so that economic benefits of regional connectivity could be reaped, besides saving the country from spillover of continued conflict.

While asking for Pakistan not to be blamed for America’s “flawed strategy” in Afghanistan, the premier said Kabul had the choice of either continuing fighting with the Taliban or reaching a compromise with them.

He felt that the time to make the Taliban to compromise had passed, especially after exit of most of the foreign forces and the insurgents controlling over half of the country.

“How do they expect that Taliban would now compromise. The time to make them compromise or a political settlement was when they were in a position of strength,” he argued.

At the same time, he worried that takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban by force would mean continuation of conflict.

Ambassador’s daughter

The prime minister said that a team of Afghan officials was expected to visit Pakistan next week to follow up on the alleged abduction and torture of Afghan envoy’s daughter Silsila Alikhil in Islamabad.

The alleged episode was the latest controversy to have further strained Pak-Afghan ties. Kabul recalled its ambassador and senior diplomats from Islamabad after the alleged incident earlier this month.

Mr Khan said that the evidence collected by the Pakistani security agencies did not corroborate the account of the incident given by Ms Alikhil.

“There’s a discrepancy there. Unfortunately, they went back so we have no way of confirming what happened,” he said. However, with an Afghan team now coming to Pakistan, he said, all evidence would be shared with it so that “they can go and ask the questions to the daughter when they go back”.

Responding to a question about a trilateral discussion between Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, the prime minister said it was not possible at the time because of absence of “diplomatic relationship” with India.

“Unfortunately until they restore the statehood we cannot really have a trilateral talk,” he maintained.

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2021

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