Imran Khan urges a new U.S.-Pakistan bond
Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan.The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is at a watershed moment. The two countries have been locked in an uneasy embrace for the last 20 years, with the United States providing much-needed support to Pakistan in exchange for Islamabad’s assistance in the war on terror. While it hasn’t been smooth (see Pakistan’s harboring of militant groups and U.S. drone strikes that killed Pakistani civilians), the relationship has more or less endured.
With U.S. forces leaving Afghanistan by Sept. 11, Pakistan faces urgent questions. What strategic clout does it have now? Where does it fit in the great power confrontation between the United States and China? Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, who took office in 2018, is trying to navigate those waters now, but it’s very unclear how his country will fare: The pandemic has taken a toll on the economy, the military still has an iron grip on the country and the relationship with India is as bad as it’s ever been.
President Biden has yet to have a conversation with Mr. Khan. Mr. Biden is meeting with the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, on Friday to discuss the U.S. withdrawal. It’s likely that Pakistan will come up in the conversation. Mr. Khan has made it clear to Axios recently that he would not accept C.I.A. bases in the country for missions in Afghanistan. (Saying otherwise in public would be political suicide). So what is the future of Pakistan’s relationship with America?
We spoke with Mr. Khan on Wednesday via video call about the way forward for Pakistan. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Yara Bayoumy: This is obviously an important time in Pakistan and in the region. The U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan gave Pakistan a lot of strategic clout with the United States. Now that the Americans are pulling out, what do you see as the future of that relationship?
Prime Minister Imran Khan: Pakistan has always had a closer relationship with the United States than, say, India, which [is] our neighbor. And then after 9/11, Pakistan again opted to join the U.S. war on terror. Now, after the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, basically Pakistan would want a civilized relationship, which you have between nations, and we would like to improve our trading relationship with the U.S.
Bayoumy: Could you elaborate more about what you mean by a civilized relationship?
Khan: You know, say between the U.S. and Britain, or actually between U.S. and India right now. So a relationship which is evenhanded. You know, unfortunately, the relationship was a bit lopsided during this war on terror.
It was a lopsided relationship because [the] U.S. felt that they were giving aid to Pakistan, they felt that Pakistan then had to do U.S.’s bidding.
And what Pakistan did in terms of trying to do the U.S. bidding actually cost Pakistan a lot in human lives. Seventy thousand Pakistanis died, and over $150 billion were lost to the economy because there were suicide bombings and bombs going on all over the country. That’s where the problem began. The U.S. kept expecting more from Pakistan. And unfortunately, Pakistani governments tried to deliver what they were not capable of.
So there was this mistrust between the two countries. And people in Pakistan felt they paid a heavy, heavy price for this relationship. And the U.S. thought Pakistan had not done enough. So in that sense, it was a lopsided relationship. What we want in the future is a relationship based on trust and common objectives. That’s actually what we have right now with the U.S. — I mean, our objectives in Afghanistan are exactly the same today.
Jyoti Thottam: But do you think that Pakistan will continue to have any strategic relevance to the U.S. once the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan?
Khan: I don’t know, really. I haven’t thought about it in that way, that Pakistan should have some strategic relevance to the U.S. I mean, states really have relationships based on common interests. And Pakistan is a country of 220 million people, a young population, in a sense strategically placed for the future if our relationship with India improves at some point, which I am an optimist. I hope it will.
So we have one of the biggest markets on one side of Pakistan, and then China on [another] other side. So two of the biggest world markets. And then the energy corridor, Central Asia, Iran, if that relationship improves between the U.S. So Pakistan, in that sense, is strategically placed for the future in terms of economics.
Bayoumy: How do you specifically see the military and security relationship going forward?
Khan: I don’t know. Post the U.S. withdrawal, I don’t know what sort of military relationship it will be. But right now, the relationship should be based on this common objective that there is a political solution in Afghanistan before the United States leaves, because Pakistan doesn’t want a civil war, a bloody civil war in Afghanistan. And I’m sure neither does the U.S., after it leaves, it wants the country going up in flames after spending, God knows, $1 or $2 trillion. So that’s a common objective.
Bayoumy: Speaking of Afghanistan, Pakistan has played a big role in the intra-Afghan peace talks. You’ve used your leverage with the Taliban, as well. In the last few weeks, we have been seeing violence increase across the country. How worried are you about a civil war in Afghanistan, and are you using your leverage with the Taliban to try and get these peace talks toward a deal?
Khan: Well, firstly, Pakistan has used the maximum leverage it could on the Taliban. What was the maximum leverage? Basically, Pakistan was the country that had recognized Taliban, one of three countries after 1996.
Given that the United States gave a date of withdrawal, from then onward, our leverage diminished on the Taliban. And the reason is that the moment the United States gave a date of exit, Taliban basically claimed victory. They’re thinking that they won the war. And so therefore, our ability to influence them diminishes the stronger they feel.
So the leverage we used was to bring them on — they were refusing to have talks, so it was Pakistan who got them to talk to the United States. And secondly, it was us pressurizing them, and really, it was [us] very toughly pushing them, pressurizing them to talk to the Afghan government. So that’s how far Pakistan has got.
Thottam: So given that long history with Afghanistan and recognizing the Taliban, are you saying that Pakistan has no more leverage left? What can you do now?
Khan: Well, Pakistan has been emphasizing to the Taliban that they should not go for a military victory because it’s not going to happen, because if they go for an all-out military victory, it would mean a protracted civil war. And the country that would be affected by a civil war, after Afghanistan, would be Pakistan. We would be affected because there are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan.
And since the Taliban is primarily a Pashtun movement, this will have two effects. One, we are scared that this will be another influx of refugees into Pakistan. Already, the country has found it very difficult to cope with three million Afghan refugees. And so there will be another influx into Pakistan.
Secondly, our vision for the future is lifting our economy and trading through Afghanistan into Central Asia. We have signed very good trade deals with the Central Asian republics, but we can only go there through Afghanistan. If there is a civil war, all that goes down the drain.
Bayoumy: Are you also talking to the Kabul government about the situation right now? What happens if the Taliban take over Afghanistan by force?
Khan: I paid a visit to President Ghani earlier this year and sort of gave our full support to the Afghan government, telling them we will do everything for this peace settlement. There’s frequent exchanges between our intelligence agencies and the Afghan intelligence agencies, and between our army chief and the Afghan president and their army chief. So there has been constant communication between us.
Unfortunately, there is still a feeling in the Afghan government that Pakistan could do more, which I have to say is very disappointing to us when they blame us for being unable to, after so many years, to come to some sort of a settlement.
Let me assure you, we will do everything except use military action against the Taliban. I mean, we will do everything up to that. All sections of our society have decided that Pakistan will take no military action. We unfortunately — and I have to say, I opposed this military action — the United States pressured Pakistan to send its troops into the tribal areas, to flush out maybe a few hundred Al Qaeda [militants] who had come into Pakistan from Afghanistan after [the Battle of] Tora Bora.
Remember, the whole border [was] completely open. There was never any border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is called the Durand Line. Now, we are fencing it, and almost 90 percent of the border, we’ve fenced now.
What if [the] Taliban try to take over Afghanistan through [the] military? Then we will seal the border, because now we can, because we have fenced our border, which was previously [open], because Pakistan does not want to get into, number one, conflict. Secondly, we do not want another influx of refugees.
Bayoumy: Will you recognize the Taliban if they do carry out a full military takeover in Afghanistan?
Khan: Pakistan will only recognize a government which is chosen by the people of Afghanistan, whichever government they choose.
Bayoumy: On India: Do you think a different government in India than the one that exists right now, would make a difference to your relationship?
Khan: You know, probably out of all the Pakistanis, I know India better than all of them. I have had love and respect from India [more] than any one because cricket is a big sport. It’s almost religion in both the countries.
So when I assumed office, the first thing I did was I made this approach to Prime Minister Modi and said that, “Look, my main objective for coming to power is to alleviate poverty in Pakistan.” And the best way would be if India and Pakistan had a normal, civilized trading relationship. It would benefit both the countries.
So we tried. Didn’t get anywhere. I think that it is a peculiar ideology of the (Hindu nationalist group) R.S.S., which Narendra Modi belongs to, which just came up against a brick wall. And therefore the answer to your question is yes. Had there been another Indian leadership, I think we would have had a good relationship with them. And yes, we would have resolved all our differences through dialogue.
Bayoumy: So if the status quo remains on Kashmir, would you consider that a win for India?
Khan: I think it’s a disaster for India because it will just mean that this conflict festers on and on. And so as long as it festers, it’s going to stop there being any relationship — normal relationship — between Pakistan and India.
Bayoumy: What we’re seeing is a generally very close relationship between the U.S. and India, one that is also increasing mainly because the U.S. sees India as a check in the region against China’s rising influence. You have gone to a lot of lengths to deepen your relationship with the Chinese. So doesn’t that put Pakistan at irreconcilable odds with both the U.S. and India?
Khan: Well, firstly I must say I find it very, very odd that — why would the U.S. and China, become these great rivals? It makes no sense because the world would really benefit if the two giants, economic giants, really got along and traded with each other. So it would be a benefit for all of us.
Secondly, why do we have to choose sides — either it’s the U.S. or China? I think we should have a relationship with everyone. China has been very good to us, in the sense that after the war on terror, or during the war on terror, we took a real battering in this country.
Our debt went up, which happens when a country is in a war situation. Business activity freezes. The provinces and the tribal areas were devastated by this war.
So China is the country that came to Pakistan’s help. And obviously we’ve had a long relationship with China.
So number one, I do not see why the U.S. should think that India is going to be this bulwark against China. If India takes on this role, I think it would be detrimental for India because India’s trade with China is going to be beneficial for both India and China.
So I’m just watching the scenario unfold and with a bit of anxiety.
Yara Bayoumy is the world and national security editor and Jyoti Thottam is the deputy editor in Opinion.