• Warns failure to engage Taliban may push them back 20 years
• Says China to fill vacuum created in war-torn country
• Asserts only Taliban can rid region of IS

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday said Pakistan did not want Afghanistan either in the US camp or Chinese camp but looked it as a trade corridor for the entire region.

The prime minister reiterated his call for the world to engage with Afghanistan because if it pushed it away, “within the Taliban movement there are hardliners, and it [the group] could easily go back to the Taliban of 2000” and that would be a “disaster”.

In an interview with Middle East Eye, a London-based online news outlet, he asked the United States to “pull itself together” or face the collapse of Afghanistan which would become a haven of terrorists.

Mr Khan believed that the militant Islamic State (IS) group was one of the biggest threats for the region and Pakistan and that only the Taliban could get them rid of the IS if they were helped in stabilising their government in Afghanistan.

He said after withdrawal of US a vacuum had been created in Afghanistan and everyone wanted to get benefit from it, but the neighbouring country should be made a real economic corridor to develop trade link from Central Asian States to Indian Ocean.

Mr Khan said China was the emerging power that would step into the vacuum.

The prime minister said China had stood by Pakistan during its recent darkest days.

“Who was the country that came to help? We were going belly up. It was China that helped us. You always remember those who help you in the difficult times,” he added.

“It’s a really critical time and the US has to pull itself together because people in the United States are in a state of shock,” Mr Khan said. It was vital for Pakistan that the Washington stepped up to the challenge because Pakistan would have to pay heavy price having already sacrificed tens of thousands of people after joining the US-led “war on terror”, he added.

He said after two decades (of war) the US had no other option but to do everything it could to support a stable government in Afghanistan, because the Taliban was the only option for fighting the IS in the region – and to prevent the ascendency of hardline elements within the Taliban’s own ranks.

He said sanctioning the Taliban would rapidly lead to a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan where half the population already lived below the poverty line, and 75 per cent of the national budget depended on foreign aid.

“Unless America takes the lead, we are worried that there will be chaos in Afghanistan and we will be most affected by that,” the prime minister said. “If the world leaves Afghanistan like this, my worry is that Afghanistan could easily revert back to 1989 when the Soviets and US left and over 200,000 Afghans died in the chaos.”

Prime Minister Khan said he had warned Joe Biden, John Kerry and Harry Reid – then all senators – in 2008 that they were creating a quagmire in Afghanistan for which there was no military solution. He said they did not listen.

Two years later then chief of the army staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani delivered the same message to US President Barack Obama, Mr Khan added.

“We have been so relieved because we expected a bloodbath but what happened was a peaceful transfer of power. But we also felt we were blamed for this,” he said. “Three hundred thousand [Afghan army] troops surrendered without a fight, so clearly we did not tell them to surrender.”

Asked whether the Taliban had formed an inclusive government, Mr Khan conceded it was not inclusive, but said the government was a transitional one.

The prime minister said Pakistan was working with (Afghanistan’s) neighbouring countries, notably Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which had sizeable ethnic minorities inside Afghanistan, to encourage the Taliban to widen representation.

He said the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) consisted of 50 groups and he was trying to reconcile those elements who were willing to talk. “Now we are trying to talk to those who can be reconciled because it’s from a position of strength. I always believed all insurgencies eventually end up on the dialogue table, like the IRA [Irish Republican Army] for instance,” he said, referring to the Northern Irish peace deal.

He accused Indian intelligence agencies of supporting terrorist attacks inside Pakistan with the help of former government in Kabul. “We now have to talk to those we can reconcile and [persuade them to] give up their arms and live as normal citizens.”

Asked whether Pakistan would allow the US to launch strikes targeting the IS in Afghanistan from Pakistan, Mr Khan said: “They don’t need a base here because we do not need to be part of a conflict again.”

“No country paid such a heavy price as us. Eighty thousand Pakistanis died. The economy was devastated. [An amount of] $150bn was lost to the economy. It was called the most dangerous place on earth. Three-and-a-half million people were internally displaced.”

Mr Khan said it was too early to say what the regional effect of the US withdrawal would be.

He condemned the continued use of drones by the US in Afghanistan.

“It is the most insane way of fighting terrorism. Doing a drone attack on a village mud hut and expecting there will not be casualties. And a lot of time the drones targeted the wrong people.”

Talking about the human rights situation in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK), the prime minister said India enjoyed the same kind of impunity within the international community over its attempts to change the demographic balance of Kashmir that Israel had in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Asked how volatile the current situation in held Kashmir was, Mr Khan replied: “If you look at the flashpoints, probably the nuclear flashpoint right now in the world is Pakistan-India because nowhere else is there a situation where there are two nuclear-armed countries who have had three wars before they were nuclear-armed.”

He said (Indian Prime Minister) Narendra Modi was copying Israel’s playbook by allowing settlers to acquire land in the disputed territory.

Calling IIOJK an open prison, he said India had violated the Geneva Convention by changing its constitution to deprive the Kashmir of autonomy.

The prime minister said India had not been challenged more forcefully on the international stage because its western allies saw it as a bulwark against China.

But he said India had also benefited from a deepening strategic and military relationship with Israel, forged by Mr Modi’s visit to the country in July 2017, and by the then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return visit to India the following year.

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2021

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