Exclusive: Pakistani Leader Imran Khan Says Taliban Can Be America's Partner for Peace

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Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan

In a candid and wide-ranging interview, Newsweek Senior Foreign Policy Writer Tom O'Connor conversed with Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, a nation that straddles Afghanistan and China both geographically and strategically. Khan discussed his goals and fears for his country and the region, and explained why he believes America must remain engaged in Afghanistan.

This conversation, conducted via email, offers a rare glimpse into one of the world's most troubled regions through the eyes of the leader of one of its most important and influential countries.

Khan rose to fame as a cricket star who led Pakistan's national team to its first World Cup victory in 1992. After his sporting career, he began philanthropic work raising funds for medical facilities and research, and established the populist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) in 1996. Through this party, he capitalized on popular dissatisfaction over corruption, religious discrimination and economic stagnation over the course of the next two decades to rise to the forefront of national politics, securing positions in parliament and rising to prime minister in 2018.

For Americans, the leading concern in the region is that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August could empower militant groups seeking to lash out abroad. Khan says he shares those anxieties. But his greatest worry doesn't stem from the Taliban, with which Islamabad has fostered close ties. Rather, it's a slew of other outlawed organizations whose aims are more immediately focused on wreaking havoc in the region.

When it comes to China, the Pakistani leader rejects President Joe Biden's hard line as "unnecessary." Khan sees not a rival but a partner, both for his nation and potentially for the U.S. as well. And at a time when the U.S. is increasingly embracing Pakistan's top rival, India, he emphasizes that Pakistan remains a ready and willing companion in counterterrorism and other endeavors.

Cooperation between the U.S. and all major powers in the region is the only way to avoid catastrophe, Khan says.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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U.S. troops sit on a wall as Afghans gather on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Newsweek: What do you feel will be the immediate impact for both Pakistan and the region as a result of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan?

Khan: Following the U.S. withdrawal, Afghanistan faces a difficult transition from the past 20 years of a US-NATO supported governance structure. The Taliban appear to have gained control over the entire country, for the first time in 40 years. There is, therefore, a hope that security can be established throughout Afghanistan. A peaceful Afghanistan will be beneficial for Pakistan, opening up possibilities for trade and development projects.

However, Afghanistan faces a humanitarian crisis due to the Covid pandemic, conflict, and the failures of the previous governments. This must be addressed as a priority. Also, we need to work with the authorities in Kabul to neutralize terrorists' groups present in Afghanistan, particularly the TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the country's largest armed opposition group], which has been responsible for thousands of terrorist attacks against Pakistan.

Do you think U.S. credibility and influence in Asia will be affected by the move? Are countries looking to alternative security partners such as China, or might countries seek to cling to a U.S. presence, given the chaos that resulted amid the withdrawal?

For its part, the United States has divested a liability—its costly military intervention—which, as the U.S. President has himself admitted, was not a strategic priority for the United States. Both Pakistan and the United States need to prevent terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. To this end, we should cooperate to help in stabilizing Afghanistan by addressing the humanitarian crisis in that country and supporting its economic recovery. Of course, there may be an immediate negative impact in the U.S. due to the chaotic nature of its evacuation from Kabul. The U.S. has withdrawn voluntarily from Afghanistan. Therefore, I don't think that the U.S. withdrawal will erode U.S. credibility globally in the long term.

As for China, if China offers economic support to Afghanistan, it's natural that the Afghans will accept it. The Taliban have welcomed the prospects of being incorporated in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and establishing close relations with China.

However, the U.S. too can play an important and positive role in Afghanistan by providing humanitarian assistance, contributing to Afghanistan's recovery and reconstruction, and cooperating in containing terrorism from Afghanistan. During the Doha peace process, the U.S. established a working relationship with the Taliban. There was direct cooperation between the U.S. and the Taliban during the evacuation process. I believe that the U.S. can work with a new government in Afghanistan to promote common interests and regional stability.

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The Taliban on Tuesday announced a caretaker Cabinet stacked with veterans of their harsh rule in the late 1990s and subsequent 20-year battle against the U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan government allies. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid speaks during a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Muhammad Farooq/AP Photo

Does Pakistan intend to recognize the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as it did during the previous Taliban takeover, and what kind of developments would you like to see in Afghanistan before establishing such formal diplomatic ties?

The Taliban have established an "acting government" and will no doubt announce a more permanent governance structure later. Pakistan is obliged to engage with the de-facto authorities in Afghanistan to prevent an economic and humanitarian collapse in this neighboring country and the resurgence of terrorism.

Once a government in Kabul establishes control over the entire country, it would legally qualify for recognition. However, Pakistan would prefer to reach a decision regarding recognition of the new government together with other neighbors of Afghanistan.

Among the most pressing concerns for the international community right now is the potential for militant and separatist groups to take advantage of the unrest in Afghanistan to plot attacks against other countries. One example has been attacks against Chinese citizens in Pakistan. Does Pakistan share these concerns, and how do you plan to address them?

There is indeed a plethora of terrorist groups which, taking advantage of the conflict in Afghanistan, located themselves in that country. Pakistan is extremely concerned about the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan, particularly from the TTP, which has conducted thousands of attacks against Pakistan from the territory of Afghanistan with the sponsorship and support of certain hostile intelligence agencies.

The TTP has also been responsible for most of its attacks on Chinese citizens working in Pakistan, perhaps with the support of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Pakistan will work with the authorities in Afghanistan to halt TTP and other terrorism from Afghanistan.

While the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan, it has focused more closely on defense ties with other regional countries, especially India. Does this concern Pakistan, given the tensions that exist in Kashmir and India's membership in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue?

Pakistan desires to promote a comprehensive, not selective, approach to neutralizing terrorists' threats from Afghanistan. We will cooperate with the international community, including the U.S., in this effort.

We understand that the U.S. military support to India is designed to contain China, including through the so-called Quad. Pakistan has its own views on the credibility of this strategy. In our view, India will never confront China, especially not to serve U.S. strategic objectives. India's purpose in arming itself so massively is to establish its hegemony in South Asia and specially to threaten and coerce Pakistan. Seventy percent of all Indian military capabilities are deployed against Pakistan, not China. Therefore, Pakistan has legitimate concerns about the provision of the most advanced weapons and technology to India. Apart from increasing the likelihood of a conflict, an arms race in South Asia will divert both India and Pakistan from investing in socio-economic development and the welfare of their people.

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"The current U.S.-China rivalry is unnecessary," says Prime Minister Imran Khan. China's President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Pakistani leader Khan before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People on April 28, 2019 in Beijing, China. Madoka Ikegami-Pool/Getty Images

Pakistan has built a close strategic partnership with China. Is there concern that Pakistan could be caught up in the broader U.S.-China rivalry?

Pakistan's relationship with China is 70 years old. It covers economic, technological, military and other sectors. Throughout this time, Pakistan has simultaneously maintained a close relationship with the United States as well. Indeed, it was Pakistan which first brought the U.S. and China together in 1971. We see no reason for our strategic partnership with China to erode our ability to continue a cooperative relationship with the United States. We believe that the current U.S.-China rivalry is unnecessary and contrary to the interests of both these global powers. Cooperation between them would be beneficial to both and is essential to address the myriad global problems we face—the COVID pandemic, the economic crisis in the developing world and the existential threat of climate change. We hope that both Beijing and Washington will reach the same conclusion in the near future.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization Council of Heads of State met on September 17. What message did you have for them as it relates to the role of Pakistan and the SCO states in addressing Afghanistan and other regional issues?

We attach importance to the SCO as a regional organization grouping the countries in the Asian heartland. At the SCO Summit, I presented Pakistan's viewpoint about the situation and presented the possible way out to address the challenges posed to the region due to the current situation in Afghanistan.

If India adopts a positive position in relations with Pakistan, the SCO could serve as a useful platform to promote stability and prosperity across this vast area of the Asian Continent.

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U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the end of the war in Afghanistan in the State Dining Room at the White House on August 31, 2021 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There have been concerns over the pace of progress in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects. How has Pakistan's economic alignment with China benefited the country, and do you expect other countries to follow Pakistan's example, or might President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better World" prove a challenge to Belt and Road Initiative projects?

China has already invested around 25 billion dollars under the umbrella of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Additional projects worth 20 billion are under implementation. Projects worth a further 25 billion dollars are in the pipeline. The COVID-19 pandemic may have slowed the implementation of some projects. However, the CPEC's objectives are being achieved on schedule, and their implementation will be accelerated in the future.

The United States and G7 initiative—"Build Back Better World"—has been welcomed by Pakistan. We do not see this as being in competition with China's "Belt and Road Initiative." It is an initiative which can contribute to building the infrastructure and other projects which are so vital to enable developing countries to achieve their development objectives and the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Supporters of the pro-Taliban party shout anti-US slogans at a protest in Quetta on May 2, 2011, after the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Banaras Khan / AFP-Getty Images

This year marked the 10th anniversary of Osama bin Laden's killing on Pakistani soil, and the world just marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. How would you evaluate the successes and failures of the United States' "War on Terror" over the course of the past two decades?

Al-Qaeda, the organization responsible for 9/11, has been decimated in Afghanistan, largely due to Pakistan-U.S. counter terrorism cooperation over the past 20 years.

However, the root causes of terrorism—the underlying conflicts and disputes, and economic and social injustice—have not been addressed. As a result, the ideology and narrative of terrorist groups have proliferated across several regions of the world, including Africa, and new terrorist organizations have emerged.

In addition, anti-Muslim extremist movements and terrorist groups have emerged in several parts of the world. We see the strongest manifestation of such Islamophobia in India's extremist Hindutva ideology, which has unleashed state-sponsored terrorism against the Muslims of occupied Jammu and Kashmir and the 200 million Indian Muslim "minority."

The world needs a new and comprehensive global counterterrorism strategy to address these new manifestations of terrorism.

Longer term, what do you think the impact of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will be on the region? If you look out, say, five years from now, what do you think the most profound difference will be—and what wild card development might change that outlook?
Four decades of war and conflict has had a devastating impact on Afghanistan's economy, society, and polity. There is a ray of hope today to end the "long war" and bring peace, stability and development to Afghanistan and the broader region.

The last thing Pakistan wants is more conflict and turbulence in Afghanistan.
After 20 years of military intervention in Afghanistan, the international community cannot exonerate itself from its responsibilities towards the people of Afghanistan. It must stay engaged with Afghanistan.

It is our hope that Afghanistan will be stabilized, through humanitarian help, economic support, and connectivity and infrastructure projects, and that the U.S., China and Russia will all contribute to pacifying and reconstructing Afghanistan.

On the other hand, if rivalry persists within Afghanistan, and between regional states and global powers, it could lead to a new round of violence and conflict in Afghanistan. This would create new flow of refugees, escalate the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan, and destabilize the entire region.

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Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, in an Exclusive Newsweek interview.