Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan vowed to return home from his first official trip to Washington and meet leaders of the Afghan Taliban to persuade them to drop their rejection of peace talks that include the Afghan government. Khan spoke to an audience of U.S. policymakers, scholars and diplomats at the U.S. Institute of Peace following talks with President Trump in his first visit to the United States as prime minister. Khan discussed his meeting with Trump and hopes for an improved relationship with the United States, as well as Pakistan’s struggles with corruption and poverty, and relations with its neighbors.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at USIP July 23, 2019.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at USIP, July 23, 2019.

Khan said he previously has declined to meet the Afghan Taliban leaders, following objections by the Afghan government. “But now, when I go back after meeting President Trump—and also, I've spoken to [Afghan] President [Ashraf] Ghani—now I will meet the Taliban and I will try my best to get them to talk to the Afghan government.” Eventual peace talks, he said, should lead to “an inclusive [Afghan] election where the Taliban … also participate.”

On U.S. Relations

The prime minister visited USIP following talks with Trump yesterday and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today. He said he hoped that his meetings can open “a relationship as equals, of friendship,” rather than, “as it has been before,” with Pakistan “wanting aid from the U.S. and then for aid Pakistan is expected to do certain things. The reason why I'm happy leaving the U.S. this time because we have a relationship now based on a mutual interest, which is peace in Afghanistan.”

Khan said that in his talks, “I never asked for any assistance. I asked for understanding. … I hate the idea that we would be asking for funds, not [just from the] U.S., from anyone. Because … aid has been one of the biggest curses for my country,” he said. “It has created a dependency syndrome. … It’s humiliating for a country.”

Khan said the tone of his meeting with President Trump was “one of the most pleasant surprises, not just for me, for my delegation … the straightforward, charming way he treated us.”

Changed Relations with Afghanistan

Khan said Pakistan has chosen to end a years-long policy of interfering in Afghan politics to avert the danger that Pakistan might someday confront an Afghan-Indian alliance. “The fear amongst the Pakistan military establishment was always that there would be a two-front situation … you know, the eastern front, which is India. And then if Afghanistan was also in the Indian sphere of influence, then Pakistan would be sandwiched between these two.”

Pakistani security doctrine sought “what was called the ‘strategic depth’ of being able to influence Afghan affairs,” Khan said. “But this has changed. Today, … we feel that by interfering in Afghanistan in order to secure the strategic depth, we've actually done a lot of damage to our own country and … we have become partisan in Afghanistan's internal affairs.”

Khan who was accompanied to Washington by Pakistan’s top military officers, said he speaks for Pakistan’s army in saying that “we should not ever interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. Let the Afghans decide what they want, what sort of government they want, and we should facilitate the peace process. So this is the big difference. Now, we're all on the same page. And fortunately, now the United States is on the same page too.”

Corruption and Development

In his 10 months in office, Khan said, his “number one challenge was inheriting a country which was bankrupt,” which he blamed on corruption by his political rivals.

“Money which should go to human development ends up going into [corrupt] people's pockets,” Khan said, and is siphoned from the country’s economy. He said he had told President Trump that “the biggest problem that the world faces is about a trillion dollars leaving developing and poor countries and either going into offshore accounts, or they end up in Western countries. And this is impoverishing. This is causing more deaths, than terrorism, than through drugs,” leading to “people dying of hunger and disease, lack of education, not having clean drinking water.”

Worse, Khan said, “is that in order for the ruling elites to take money out, they have to destroy the state institutions”—taxation and judicial systems. “So, you know, you can recover the money, but … to build institutions takes time.”

Other points by Prime Minister Khan included these:

  • On relations with India. “Pakistan at the moment, most of all needs stability” and thus “a good relationship with our neighbors,” Khan said. He said he has assured Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that, “you come one step towards us, we will go two steps towards you—because the biggest problem India and Pakistan face is poverty. The best way we can reduce poverty is if we start trading with each other.”
  • On the international crisis around Iran. “My worry about Iran is, … I'm not sure whether all the countries realize the gravity of the situation if there's a conflict with Iran,” Khan said. “You know, this is not going to be the same as [the 2003 U.S. invasion of] Iraq. This could be much, much, much worse. … It could unleash terrorism, which – people would forget Al-Qaida. … You know, the battle might be quite short if it goes ahead, bombing airfields and so on. But the consequences after that, my worry is that not many people fully understand it. And I would strongly urge that there should not be … another military situation.” Khan added: “We would do anything, I mean, if [there is] any role Pakistan can play in this. We have already suggested this to Iran. Until recently Iran was willing but then, somehow I felt that the Iran is getting very desperate. And I do not think they should be pushed into a situation where this leads to a conflict.”
  • On Pakistan’s Pashtun protest movement. Last year’s rise of the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement is a response to desperation in the ethnic Pashtun tribal region along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, Khan said. After years of military operations meant to root out armed insurgents of the Pakistani Taliban, “This young Pashtun movement started, (and)… was correct, what they were saying. The area was devastated, the people of the tribal areas—I mean, half of them were internally displaced.” Khan noted that “we've just had elections in the tribal area [for the] first time in Pakistan's history.” Khan played down reports that members of the movement had been arrested and press coverage of its protests restricted. He said the military cracked down on the movement only after “civilians charged an army post,” a reference to a clash in the region of North Waziristan in May. Khan expressed the hope that, with the recent elections and an injection of development funds, “now, it’s settling down.”

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