In a candid and wide-ranging interview, Newsweek Senior Foreign Policy Writer Tom O’Connor spoke 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 with Afghanistan.
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 becoming 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 ally 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 interview, 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.
The dialogue has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: 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?
A: Following the U.S. withdrawal, Afghanistan faces a difficult transition from the past 20 years of a U.S.-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.
Q: 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 they seek to cling to a U.S. presence, given the chaos that resulted amid the withdrawal?
A: 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.
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