Failure to engage with Taliban could push group back 20 years: PM Imran

Published October 11, 2021
Prime Minister Imran Khan gives an interview to the Middle East Eye on Monday. — Photo courtesy: Middle East Eye
Prime Minister Imran Khan gives an interview to the Middle East Eye on Monday. — Photo courtesy: Middle East Eye

Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday once again stressed the need for the international community to engage with the Taliban and said that a failure to do so could push the group back 20 years.

In an interview with the Middle East Eye, the premier discussed a wide range of topics including the current situation in Afghanistan, relations with the United States, Indian actions in occupied Kashmir and allegations against China regarding the treatment of Uighurs.

Stressing the need for the international community to engage with the Taliban government in Afghanistan, PM Imran said that 20 years of civil war had devastated the country.

He said that after so many years, members of the Taliban who had given sacrifices would want to be rewarded by being placed in the government's hierarchy.

"Yet, the government is clearly trying to get international acceptability so it wants an inclusive government, talks about human rights and not allowing its soil to be used for terrorism by anyone," he said, adding that it was a critical point for the war-torn country.

"The world must engage with Afghanistan," he said as he warned of the consequences of not doing so. "There must be hardliners within the group [and] it can easily go back to the Taliban of 20 years ago. And that would be a disaster."

He said that if Afghanistan would once again descend into chaos, it would become a fertile ground for terrorists like ISIS, which is a worry for all countries in the region.

"It would be a total waste, what will the US have to show after 20 years? Therefore, a stable Afghanistan government which can then take on ISIS, and the Taliban are the best bet to take on ISIS, that is the only option left."

He said that isolating and imposing sanctions on Afghanistan would result in a massive humanitarian crisis.

"If they are left like this, my worry is that [Afghanistan] could revert back to 1989 when the Soviets and Americans left," he said, adding that over 200,000 Afghans died in that chaos.

PM Imran added that the US had to "pull itself together" from the shock it had suffered after the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan.

"I don't think they have found their feet as yet," he said, adding that Pakistan would also suffer as a result of chaos in Afghanistan.

When asked about Pakistan's point of view after the Taliban takeover, the prime minister said: "We have been so relived because we expected a bloodbath [...] it was peaceful transfer of power".

The premier said there were a number of reasons for the lack of resistance from the Afghan army such, including the corruption of the former government.

Pressed on the lack of inclusiveness in the new government setup, the prime minister acknowledged that it was not present "right now" but hoped it would be in the future, adding that it was needed because Afghanistan was a diverse society.

Similarly, on the issue of women rights, he said the Taliban should be incentivised to "walk the talk" —pointing out that the group had said it would allow women to work and get educated.

'All insurgencies end up on dialogue table'

When asked about the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) posing a problem for the country, the prime minister said that Pakhtuns on Pakistan's side of the border had started attacking the state when it allied itself with the US invasion of Afghanistan.

"They called us collaborators, started attacking us and calling themselves the Pakistani Taliban which we didn't have before joining the alliance. At one point there were 50 different groups calling themselves the Taliban [and] attacking us," the prime minister said.

He added that this movement and its motivation died down once the US footprint decreased and Pakistan ceased being a collaborator.

"We are no longer collaborators because we are not allying ourselves with anyone fighting the Pakhtuns so the motivation has gone down. Now we are trying to talk to those who can be reconciled because it is from a position of strength.

"I believe that all insurgencies eventually end up on the dialogue table," the premier said.

He pointed out that the Taliban had assured Pakistan it would not let Afghanistan's soil be used against any country. This was in contrast with the previous Afghan government, which he alleged had facilitated Indian agencies in helping conduct attacks against Pakistan.

The prime minister also derided the US policy of conducting drone attacks in its efforts to fight terrorism, calling it the "most insane" method.

He partly attributed the rise of the TTP to collateral damage suffered in the wake of US drone attacks and military operations in tribal areas. "Whenever the army goes into civilian areas, there is collateral damage."

Pak-US relations

Asked whether he would allow US bases in Pakistan for action against ISIS, PM Imran said: "I think they don't need a base here because we don't want to be a part of conflict again."

He said no country had paid as heavy a price as Pakistan by joining the US-led 'war on terror', but lamented the fact that the country was being scapegoated.

Questioned about what US President Joe Biden had said in response to concerns in Afghanistan, the prime minister clarified that he still had not spoken with him — a fact which the interviewers described as "astonishing".

He said he had warned US officials back in 2008 about the futility of a military solution to the Afghan issue and potentially creating a "bigger quagmire than Iraq".

"Unfortunately, I think they were led by the generals and you know what they always say: give us more troops and time."

'China has provided explanation about Uighurs'

Describing relations between Pakistan and China, PM Imran said the relationship was 70-years-old and had "stood the test of time".

"In all our ups and downs, China has stood with us," he pointed out, adding that China had helped Pakistan during moments of crisis when "we were going belly up".

Asked about his silence on the treatment of Uighurs in China, the premier said that he considered "selective pronouncements on human rights" to be immoral.

The premier also questioned why there was no criticism of Indian actions in occupied Kashmir or its treatment of Muslims and minorities.

He said Pakistan had spoken to China about the Uighur issue and had been provided with an explanation. "Our relationship with China is such that we have an understanding between us. We will talk to each other, but behind closed doors because that is their nature and culture."

He said the Muslim world was subject to turmoil and that the government wanted to highlight the Kashmir issue and human rights violations in the occupied valley.

"Let the world take notice of that first, then we will talk about other violations of human rights."

'No pressure to recognise Israel'

Asked about the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel and whether it had provided a "template" to India, the prime minister noted that the two countries were very close.

He pointed out that India Prime Minister Narendra Modi had clamped down on occupied Kashmir on August 5, 2019, after his visit to Israel.

"Do we think he got his instruction from there? Because that is what Israel has done. They have built such a strong security apparatus and crush anything. They will send people in and kill [and] assassinate and they have total immunity."

He said that India felt it had the same immunity and could get away with anything. "The worst human rights violations [are taking place] in Kashmir, nowhere [else] — maybe in Israel — but nowhere are things as bad as they are in Kashmir."

The premier also denied any pressure from Gulf countries to recognise Israel and said that Pakistan was a democratic country which could not take any unilateral decision without taking the people aboard.

Cancellation of NZ, England cricket tours

PM Imran was also asked about his reaction to the England and Wales Cricket Board's (ECB) decision to cancel the tour to Pakistan scheduled for November.

He said that he had observed the evolution of Pak-England cricket ties over the years. "I think there is still this feeling in England that they do a great favour by playing for countries like Pakistan," he added.

The premier said that no one would "dare do that to India" due to the power and financial resources of the Indian cricket board. "I didn't say anything, but I think England let themselves down because I expected a bit more from them."

He said that the England and New Zealand cricket teams had let themselves down by cancelling the tours based on "something which we know was fake news initiated by some Indian through Singapore".

The prime minister said that England's players should reflect on how they would feel if they were treated in this manner by another country.

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