The longstanding alliance between Pakistan and the United States is faltering, with Washington accusing Islamabad of supporting terrorism. How serious is this spat and what will it mean for America’s Afghan war? We ask Imran Khan, member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and leader of the Pakistan Movement for Justice.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Imran Khan, member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and leader of Pakistan Movement for Justice, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us today. Mr. Khan, Pakistani Prime Minister Abbasi has just paid a visit to Kabul. Now Afghans, like former Afghan Intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, are saying that Pakistan views Afghanistan as a weaker state, and its relations with Afghanistan are driven by sheer greed and arrogance. How can you strike deals with Kabul if they view Pakistan this way?
Imran Khan: This is very unfortunate. The remarks of the Afghan Intelligence chief to define Pakistan’s relationships with Afghanistan in these terms is actually very unfortunate because Afghanistan needs Pakistan, and Pakistan needs peace and stability in Afghanistan. Otherwise Pakistan gets affected, especially along the border, the so-called the FATA, the tribal areas on the border of Afghanistan. So if you have problems in Afghanistan, instability which sadly has been there for 16 years, Pakistan gets affected. So it’s in Pakistan’s interest that there is peace in Afghanistan. There is a problem, unfortunately, that the American policy of using a one-dimensional military solution to problems in Afghanistan has led not only to the longest war, but it has caused immense problems to Pakistan. Because the border with Afghanistan is the poorest, there was a free movement of people. And so what happens in Afghanistan affects Pakistan, so we need peace there, and I find these statements very sad.
SS:I hear you. Talking about American policy, back in January Donald Trump ordered billions of dollars in security aid to Pakistan to be frozen, accusing it of inaction in the war on terror. Former head of ISI, Asad Durrani, told me that Pakistan’s dependence on American aid ended a long time ago. So why then is your country’s defense minister calling on the United States to reconsider the cut?
IK: My point of view is that this American aid has been very costly for Pakistan. For getting whatever aid we did get in these 15 years, the damage done to Pakistan and participating the U.S. war on terror has led to almost 70,000 people dead. It has devastated our tribal areas, the border areas, we have half of the population – we are talking about 3 to 4 million people – who were internally displaced. And the loss of the economy is about 100 billion dollars. So this small aid has been very costly. And the lesson learned, from Pakistan’s point of view, is to never fight someone else’s war. And people like us have always opposed it. Donald Trump doesn’t understand the history of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has a history, where they do not accept foreigners. They have always resisted foreign invasions. And if he had even drawn any lessons from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, before that the British in the 19th century invasion of Afghanistan, he would know that this military solution which Donald Trump also has tried, is going to fail. The only solution, the only way to bring peace in Afghanistan is all the neighbors sit together and then come up with a political solution. There is no other solution apart from that.
SS: So the U.S. government is saying that anywhere from 50% to 70% of the aid sent to Pakistan was misspent, wasted on kickbacks, bribes, even stolen. Meanwhile, the Pakistani foreign minister says that the country is ready to account for every single penny. In your opinion, once again, should there be more to this spat? I mean, should the Americans put forth proof of corruption? Should Pakistan follow up and show actual accounting?
IK: The aid given in proportion to the damage done in Pakistan by participating in the U.S. war – there is no comparison. The aid was what? They say, about 20 billion dollars, maybe 25 billion dollars. Pakistan has lost over a hundred billion dollars. Economy suffered. Investment suffered. The damage done through terrorism meant that foreign investors won’t come into Pakistan. Tourism collapsed in this country. Even today foreign cricket teams don’t come to play in Pakistan. So this country took a heavy punishment by participating in that war. And as I said, the money coming from that aid is a small pittance compared to what it cost to people of Pakistan.
SS:So you have said that Trump is briefed by and working for the agenda of Pakistan’s enemies. Whose agenda would that be?
IK: The things that Donald Trump has said – he has actually applauded India’s role in the war on terror, and he has actually blamed Pakistan for the U.S. not winning in Afghanistan. And then he has blamed Pakistan for terrorism. Now this is exactly what India says about Pakistan. And so therefore it was extremely hurtful for people of this country. They participated in the war that was not Pakistan’s war. There were no Pakistanis involved in 9/11. Al-Qaeda was in Afghanistan. There were no militant Taliban in Pakistan. How did we end up in a war where 70,000 Pakistanis have died? We still have terrorism in this country, we’re still having the effects of this war on terror. Therefore, to be blamed for the U.S. failure in Afghanistan…
SS:Mr. Khan, are you saying India is duping American President into making decisions?
IK: I don’t know what he has come up with, but it’s quite clear that the things he is saying is praising India whereas India didn’t make any sacrifices in this war on terror. What role did India play in this whole war? It’s Pakistan that took the burden, the suffering. And so to praise India is shocking for all of us. What has India contributed to this war on terror? And to give India a role in Afghanistan… India doesn’t have a border with Afghanistan.
SS:Pakistan’s foreign minister says that United States has turned Islamabad into ‘a whipping boy’ to distract from its failures in Afghanistan. Do you agree? Is Washington looking to single out Pakistan to deter criticism?
IK: Absolutely, I agree with that. Just look at the facts. At one point there were 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. And then the Afghan army is anything between 250,000 to 300,000. So you are talking about almost half a million armed forces in Afghanistan. And what the U.S. blames Pakistan for is that two or three thousand insurgents coming from Pakistan to Afghanistan are the reason why they could not win the war in Afghanistan.
SS:Can the drop in American aid be countered by deals of Pakistan’s newest friends, like China or Saudi Arabia? Are you expecting their influence to rise now that the United States is on the collision course with Pakistan?
IK: Firstly, what would the U.S. do to be on a collision course with Pakistan? The maximum leverage that the U.S. has is to stop the aid. And, you know, Pakistan should try everything to keep the U.S. happy. But the problem is that the U.S. expects Pakistan – the message it has made in Afghanistan – to somehow win the war which they’ve badly lost in Afghanistan. And when I say ‘lost’ I mean they haven’t won. All the Taliban have to do to win the war is not to lose. So what the U.S. expects Pakistan to do is what it has not been able to do to succeed in Afghanistan. And clearly Pakistan has limitations. And if Pakistan now… What they want to do is to take actions against these Taliban groups supposedly operating from Pakistan. Well, then they should tell us where these groups are. They are talking about the Haqqani network. At its peak the Haqqani network would have maximum 2000 – 2500 men in Pakistan. That surely cannot be the reason why they’ve lost and have not been able to win for 16 years. What I feel is that the American policy of military actions, collateral damage… I don’t know whether you have seen, in Kunduz the bomb in madrasa killed a hundred children. Now that hundred children killed by the American bomb means that this will raise hatred in Afghanistan, and hatred means more recruits, and so it’s an ongoing circle: collateral damage, hatred, more recruits and an ongoing war. So the answer is that the U.S. has to change its strategy. And that’s going towards dialogue and political solution.
SS:So the loss of the U.S. aid may not be a catastrophe for your country, but now Americans are considering provisionally putting Pakistan on the international terrorism sponsor list, the so-called gray list. You may think it is not fair to Pakistan, but how damaging and dangerous would that be for the country?
IK: I think, it’s very unfair to Pakistan, you know, a country that participated in the U.S. war, and I repeat, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, and a country that lost more people than any other country. I mean, Pakistan lost more human beings, almost 70,000 dead, vast number of them were handicapped because of bomb blasts, for helping the Americans, for joining the American war, it brought the heaviest cost. And at the end the Americans today blame Pakistan and put sanctions against it, I think, this is the greatest travesty of justice. I think, you know, it is something which is inconceivable that the U.S. would blame Pakistan for its failure in Afghanistan.
SS:But how damaging would it be though?
IK: Well, it will be damaging. I mean, for Pakistan, unfortunately, the economic situation is not that strong right now. The country is actually going through an economic crisis. So American sanctions would be damaging. But I mean, is this justice? Is it fair? Is this how the U.S. would use a country like a tissue paper and when it thinks it doesn’t need it anymore it just casts it away? I think it’s very immoral.
SS:Mr. Khan, you said that Pakistan should fight terrorism for its own sake. Is Pakistan fighting terrorism for somebody else at the present moment?
IK: Well, Pakistan started off fighting the U.S. war. I mean, there was no Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, there were no militant Taliban in Pakistan, and we didn’t have the terrorism. We had sectarian terrorism, but that was just nothing compared to what happened once we joined the U.S. war on terror after 9/11. And then we had a spate of suicide bombings which was bigger than in any other country. I mean, Pakistan suffered the sort of terrorism which no other country suffered. And there was a point in 2010-2011 when people were worried about the future of the country, we were falling apart. So it was thanks to the security forces that they eventually took this fanaticism and terrorism under control, which was because we were considered collaborators with the Americans. So all the anti-Americanism turned against Pakistan. People were attacking Pakistani security forces because they thought we were collaborating with the U.S. So the brunt of the anger against the U.S. was borne by Pakistan.
SS: Afghan politicians are openly saying that Pakistan is supporting the Taliban, it’s become somewhat of an open secret, and even some former Pakistani officials are admitting to that, like Musharraf even. How can Pakistan be fighting terrorists with one hand and then supporting them with another?
IK: Well, they are two different things. One is the so-called Taliban who attack in Pakistan, Pakistani forces, security forces. On the other hand, there is the Afghan Taliban who are fighting in Afghanistan. Now what Pakistan says is that the terrorism coming into Pakistan is from Afghanistan, and Afghanistan is saying that the terrorism coming into Afghanistan, or that they cannot win it in Afghanistan, is because of the insurgents which is the Afghan Taliban going in from the Pakistani borders. My point is that clearly, first of all, there is a huge part of Afghanistan, some say 40%, some say 50%, which is not under the control of the Afghan government. So why would all these Taliban have to come to Pakistan if there is so much space available for them to operate within Afghanistan? That’s a number one point. Number two, given that there is not going to be peace in Afghanistan unless there is a political settlement, so shouldn’t the Afghan government and the Americans be telling Pakistan to use their influence on the Afghan Taliban to get them to peace talks? So, surely, Pakistan’s role right now should not be trying killing more people, and creating more problems for a country, that has taken the most beating, most suffering in the war on terror. It should rather be helping in the dialogue and the peace process with its influence on the Afghan Taliban.
SS: Is Pakistan actually capable of getting its multiple militant groups under control on the Afghan border and in Kashmir? International community is saying that Pakistan tolerates militants, but does Pakistan have enough strength to eradicate them if it wanted to? I mean, the Pakistani Taliban are even listing you your family as targets. Can they be stopped?
IK: The strength of the Pakistani Taliban has been greatly reduced. Ever since the American footprint reduced in Afghanistan, the level of fanaticism went down in our country; no longer were the Pakistani security forces supposed to be collaborators of the Americans. Hence, the recruitment for the Pakistani Taliban went down, and the fanaticism went down and so the Pakistani security forces are more or less in control of, what is called, a TPT – the Pakistan Taliban. The problem is in Afghanistan now. If Afghanistan is secure, settled, stable, then there would be peace in Pakistan. The problem is that because Afghanistan is unsettled we keep having attacks from Afghanistan on the Pakistani soil right now, because the Pakistani forces have control over the Pakistani areas more or less now. There are still incidents, but much fewer. There has been a problem with Kashmir for the last 25 years. There are almost 600,000 to 700,000 Indian troops in Kashmir, there are violations of human rights, the local population has turned against the Indian army, the people have risen up against India in peaceful protests. Now India blames Pakistan for what is going on in Kashmir. In Kashmir it’s an indigenous struggle. This is not a struggle fueled by Pakistan. Why don’t they give the Kashmiris the right to decide what they want, the democratic right to decide their future? But they do not give them that right, they are using their forces to suppress that democratic freedom struggle and they blame Pakistan for what is going on in Kashmir which, again, is unfair. Now we have two fronts. One is India blaming all what is happening in Kashmir on Pakistan. The other is the U.S. and the Afghan government blaming the instability in Afghanistan on Pakistan. That’s Pakistan’s problem right now. Unfortunately, we did not project that point of view on the diplomatic level. We have failed to really project what is happening in Kashmir and at the same time the sacrifices Pakistan has given in the U.S. war on terror, and Pakistan is not responsible for what is happening in Afghanistan.
SS: You’ve said that if hundreds of thousands of NATO troops couldn’t change the situation in Afghanistan, additional troops that the U.S. is sending there annually are ‘only going to prolong the agony’. Do you mean to say that Afghanistan is finished as a state and should be left alone to die peacefully?
IK: No, not at all. I think that Afghanistan has a very proud history, its people have suffered more than probably any other country because they’ve been suffering almost 40 years. They’ve been suffering this conflict, strive, instability and, so, if any people deserve peace, it’s the people of Afghanistan. And the only way that can be achieved is if all the neighbors sit at the table and bring the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government at the table. That’s the only way. Unfortunately, until recently the Americans were not willing to talk to the Afghan Taliban. Only now they have accepted that there should be dialogue. But this one-dimensional policy of just using military means to achieve peace had failed a long time ago. There was a time when Obama came to power and there was Holbrooke, the Rep. (Representative) in Afghanistan and he almost got the Taliban to sit at the table for a dialogue. But, unfortunately, that surge spearheaded by Petraeus is what sabotaged these peace talks, and actually that led to more bloodshed. Now, Trump initially tried the same thing again hoping that, you know, by attacking the Taliban they would bring them to the table, but that’s failed. And now, I think, there is a consensus everywhere that the only way peace can be achieved in Afghanistan is through dialogue and all neighbors sitting at the table. But that is the most important thing to help the people of Afghanistan.
SS: So Hamid Karzai told me in a recent interview that Pakistan’s policy towards his country is defined by its rivalry with India. Why is it so bad for Pakistan if Afghanistan becomes India’s friend?
IK: Well, it’s because the signals coming from India are extremely aggressive. Ever since Narendra Modi’s prime-ministership India’s stance with Pakistan is not only aggressive, but the whole foreign policy is to isolate Pakistan. And some of us in this country think that they even wouldn’t mind Pakistan splitting, breaking away Waziristan from the rest of the country. So clearly Pakistan is worried that if they face India on two fronts, meaning, you know, along Eastern border and then if Afghanistan becomes an Indian satellite, which is a big challenge for the Pakistan security forces, then Pakistan is struggling on two fronts. So it’s out of this insecurity that Hamid Karzai is right – the policy is determined by the security issues.
SS: So both countries, India and Pakistan, are saying how tense their relations are and have military plans for a conflict. Recently Pakistan adopted a doctrine of using low-yield nuclear weapons in case of a major war with India. Is Islamabad really ready to use nuclear weapons on the Indian subcontinent?
IK: That is the nightmare scenario. And that is why it is very important to resolve our differences; India and Pakistan are to sit at the table and have some sort of a roadmap to resolve the issues. The problem is, I repeat again, Prime Minister Narendra Modi who since coming to power has the policy that is extremely aggressive and it is hostile towards Pakistan. Obviously Pakistan is much smaller than India, and it has made the country very insecure. The government is insecure, our security establishment is insecure. Bearing in mind that we are two nuclear-armed countries the best way is if we will sit down and resolve our differences. But, unfortunately, so far India’s response has been arrogant and very aggressive. And whatever happens, the moment any sort of talks start or have (started) in the past, one terrorist incident derails the whole process and we are back to square one. What we really need is a strong determined leadership in both countries, a leadership that has the ability to take the pressure from that small lobby in both countries that doesn’t want peace. And whatever happens, whatever little incident happens, the two countries stick to the roadmap of peace. And the peace has to be a resolution of the Kashmir issue. So, unfortunately, at the moment I don’t see that dialogue happening, but in the future it is the only solution that the two countries sit together and resolve this issue of Kashmir, so that we can live side by side as civilized neighbors.
SS: All right, Mr. Khan, thank you very much for this interview. Good luck with the elections. We were talking with Imran Khan, member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and leader of Pakistan Movement for Justice discussing the rift between Islamabad and Washington and its implications for the peace process in Afghanistan.
IK: Thank you.