Saturday June 22, 2024

‘Pakistan has no favourites in Afghanistan’

By Muhammad Anis & Mumtaz Alvi
August 13, 2021
‘Pakistan has no favourites in Afghanistan’

ISLAMABAD/RAWALPINDI: Prime Minister Imran Khan Thursday said the US was treating Pakistan differently, as it had decided that India was its strategic partner.

During an interaction with the foreign media here, Imran dwelt on the current Afghan situation, its impact on Pakistan, and the US troops’ withdrawal.

He said in the eyes of the US, Pakistan was left to clean up the stench of 20 years left in Afghanistan. In the current situation, he said, there was no political solution to the Afghan problem, as the Taliban say as long as Ashraf Ghani remained the president, they will not talk to him.

Imran noted that he had tried to persuade the Taliban in a meeting with them in Islamabad three or four months ago to negotiate with the Afghan government, but they did not seem willing. “I think the Afghan government wants to call the United States back to Afghanistan, but the latter has been in Afghanistan for 20 years. Now if the United States is back in Afghanistan, what will it do that it has not done in the last 20 years,” he remarked.

“We have made it clear that we do not want any US military base in Pakistan. The Americans left Afghanistan in a haste. If they wanted a political settlement, then common sense dictates that you negotiate from a position of strength. The US is now blaming Pakistan when they no longer had any leverage. I think the Americans have decided that India is their strategic partner. Maybe that's why Pakistan is being treated differently. Pakistan is just considered to be useful only in the context of settling this mess,” he contended.

Pakistan's closeness to China, he pointed out, was another reason for the change in the US attitude. The prime minister stressed throughout the interaction that Pakistan stood to lose the most from a deteriorating Afghan situation.

“You ask me whether we are worried. We are definitely worried for the direct impact of descending into a prolonged civil war ... the country that will be most affected after Afghanistan will be Pakistan”.

He explained that the Taliban were a Pakhtun-majority group and hence there would be spillover effects in Pakistan's Pakhtun majority areas. He recalled that how it happened in 2003/2004 that the Pakhtun areas of Pakistan reacted to what was happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan lost 70,000 people in that because it supported the Americans.

“So there is likelihood that we will again have problems in our Pakhtun areas. Moreover, close to three million people have also been internally displaced from the tribal areas,” he maintained.

Imran pointed out that Pakistan already housed three million registered Afghan refugees with more unaccounted for. “Our economy is just recovering; we don't want another inflow of refugees. Any civil war in Afghanistan would also derail Pakistan's plans for connectivity with Central Asia and geo-economic agenda, throwing them out the window,” he emphasised.

He continued that a nightmare scenario for Pakistan would be a protracted civil war in case the Taliban tried to form an exclusive Afghan government through a military takeover. He then explained that Afghanistan was an ethnically diverse population so if the Taliban tried to take over and one ethnic group tried to impose itself on the others, it would lead to constant unrest and that wasn't what Pakistan wanted.

Imran noted again that Pakistan would be affected by that unrest since ‘we have a larger Pakhtun population here in Pakistan than in Afghanistan and they're probably the most xenophobic people on earth. They fight each other normally but when it is an outside force, they all get together’.

Pakistan's entry in the US-led war on terror in 2001, he recalled, led to a civil war in the tribal areas and that as a result, the militant organisations formed to wage Jihad against the Soviet Union turned against Pakistan. Hence, he said, it was in Pakistan's interest that there was a political settlement and all factions came together to form a government that represented everyone.

Responding to a question about the extent of Pakistani influence over the Taliban, he contended that even back in 2001 when Pakistan had recognised the Taliban government and was the most influential, the group had refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. So even then Pakistan's influence was not all-encompassing.

Imran said anyone who thought Afghanistan could be controlled from outside didn't understand the character of the Afghan people and that these people could not be made puppets.

He remarked, “If I were a Pakistani policymaker in the 90s, I would not have encouraged this idea of strategic depth which was Pakistan's policy at the time. It is very understandable because India, much bigger in size, was a hostile eastern neighbour and the Pakistani security setup was always worried about facing hostilities on two fronts so there was always an attempt to have a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan”.

Imran emphasised that attempting to influence the Afghan government would not work since the Afghan population would not accept it and any perception of being controlled from outside would lead to a loss of credibility.

“Pakistan should work with any government that is selected by the people of Afghanistan. Hence, the PTI government's policy is to engage with all the Afghan factions, have no favourites and have a readiness to work with whichever government comes into power,” he said.

“Once President Ashraf Ghani got elected and the Taliban were excluded, it was always going to be a problem from then onwards since he insisted they talk to him while they didn't recognise him or the elections. Now the Afghan government is extremely critical of Pakistan; they think we have some magical powers that we will make the Taliban do whatever we want them to do,” he said.

He continued that the Afghan government didn't realise that Pakistan's leverage was minuscule and diminished since the American withdrawal. He further said it became extremely difficult to persuade the Taliban once the US gave a date for withdrawal and the Afghan government was now blaming Pakistan for the situation.

Meanwhile, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa Thursday said peace in Afghanistan meant peace in Pakistan adding that Pakistan had no favourites in the ongoing conflict and its sole desire was to help achieve peace and stability there.

He was talking to the ambassadors of four European countries, who called on him at the General Headquarters here. Matters of mutual interest, regional security situation including latest situation in Afghanistan and enhanced bilateral cooperation with the European Union (EU) came under discussion.

The envoys included Bernhard Stephan Schlagheck, Ambassador of Germany; Andreas Ferrarese, Ambassador of Italy; Willem Wouter Plomp, Ambassador of the Netherlands; and Yves Manville, Acting Ambassador of France.

The COAS also said Pakistan valued its relations with the EU countries and earnestly looked forward towards enhancing mutually beneficial multi-domain relations based on common interests. The visiting dignitaries also appreciated Pakistan's role in regional stability and pledged to play their part for further cooperation with Pakistan at all levels.