New Delhi: The Taliban of today is not its 2001 self, and India is being run by radical Hindu supremacists: These are a few takeaways from Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s chat Monday with Richard Haass, the president of the New York-based thinktank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
Khan discussed a host of subjects during the interview, where he also fielded questions from the audience.
He talked about how al Qaeda and other jihadi groups were trained by the Pakistan army and its infamous intelligence agency, the ISI, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, and also weighed in on Islamabad’s silence on the persecution of Uighur Muslims in China. ThePrint brings you some highlights.
On Pakistan’s relationship with jihadis
From time to time, several Pakistan leaders and former army and intelligence officers have talked about the military establishment and the ISI supporting jihadis. When Khan referred to the fact Monday, he became, perhaps, the first Pakistan prime minister to acknowledge the scale of this support.
“I can tell you one thing… The Pakistani army, ISI, trained al Qaeda and all these troops to fight in Afghanistan. There were always links between — there had to be links, because they trained them,” said Khan.
“The resistance (against Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) was organised by Pakistani ISI training these militants, who were invited from all over the Muslim world to do jihad against the Soviet Union. And so we created these militant groups to fight the Soviets.”
Khan also claimed that Pakistan paid a heavy price when it joined the US to pursue the same groups in the aftermath of 9/11, which was masterminded by the late al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
“Now, as I said, after 9/11, when we did a 180-degree turn and went after those groups, you know, not everyone agreed with us,” he said. “Within the army people didn’t agree with us. And so, as I said, there were more insider attacks in Pakistan.”
At one point in the interview, Haass asked Khan whether the ISI was aware of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts before he was killed in Pakistan’s Abbottabad by US Navy SEALs in 2011. Khan replied that if there was contact between bin Laden and the ISI, they were “probably at low levels” of the intelligence agency.
Asked if Pakistan had investigated how bin Laden lived under the radar in the country for so long, Khan said there had been an inquiry by a judicial panel, the Abbottabad Commission, but he didn’t know its conclusion.
On civilian-military balance
When Haass asked Khan about the perception that the “preponderance of power” in Pakistan was in the hands of “the head of the army and the head of intelligence”, the latter fashioned his answer as an attack on his predecessor, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).
He argued that “democracies function because of moral authority”. “If democracies lose their moral authority, then the physical strength and authority lies with the army,” he said. “In our country because space was given, due to a lack of moral authority because of corrupt governments, the army — you know, naturally there’s no vacuum. So it moved in.”
Khan then claimed that the army had supported each of his decisions — including an austerity campaign that cut into military spending — in the 13 months he’s been in office.
On a reformed Taliban and peace Afghanistan
The Pakistan-brokered peace talks between the Taliban and the US, which has been fighting its longest war in Afghanistan, collapsed recently after an American soldier died in a terrorist attack.
Despite being party to the peace dialogue, the Taliban has been responsible for a wave of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, bent on derailing the upcoming presidential election.
In this light, Haass asked Khan whether it was worthwhile to expect any kind of lasting peace in Afghanistan after the US troops left, as President Donald Trump desires. On another occasion, an audience member sought to draw attention to the Taliban’s persecution of women and minorities.
To both these questions, the Pakistan leader replied that a lot had changed since 2001, when the US attacked Afghanistan and unseated the Taliban, and that the group was now reformed.
“I feel that this is not the Taliban which was there when — in 2001 who was displaced by the US. Things have changed… They have learned,” said Khan.
“Taliban realise that they cannot control the whole of Afghanistan. The Afghan government knows that they cannot — you know, there needs to be some sort of a peace deal. There has to be a political settlement,” he added.
Khan, however, did not cite any example to explain why he thought the Taliban will now be “more accommodating”.
Love for China
At the event, Khan was repeatedly asked questions on Pakistan’s relationship with China, including whether he feared Islamabad’s sovereignty would be undermined because of Beijing’s growing role on the back of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“I mean, what would China — how would it impinge on our sovereignty? Maybe they would say, don’t have a good relationship with the US. But the Chinese have never, ever interfered in any of our foreign policy, in any of our domestic policy, for that matter,” Khan replied.
Asked how he felt about the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China, Khan said Pakistan took up “issues like these” privately with Beijing.
“We don’t make public statements, because that’s how China is. And I again repeat, I mean, China has come to help when we were right at the rock bottom. So I would not publicly talk about it,” said Khan.
When Haass asked him whether economic growth at the cost of democracy or human rights was a model worth emulating, Khan said it was admirable how China had uplifted people out of poverty and controlled corruption.
On India and Hindu nationalism
Khan also reiterated his criticism of the Narendra Modi government in India.
“I’m more worried about India right now than probably even Pakistan, because India is not heading in the right direction. If you see what has happened in India in the last six years, it is frightening for some of us,” he said.
“It’s not the India I know of Gandhi and Nehru. It is this ideology that has taken over India, of Hindu supremacy.”
Khan said he had repeatedly tried to reset relations with India, especially after Modi’s re-election, but that didn’t happen. “That’s when we started thinking this is something — there’s some sort of an agenda going on,” he added.