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In just over one month, the United States will have completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. But for those two decades, Afghanistan's eastern neighbor, Pakistan, stood accused by American and Afghan forces of supporting the Taliban. Judy Woodruff speaks with Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan about his country's fraught relationship with the U.S. and Afghanistan.
In just over one month, according to President Biden, the U.S. will have completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, after 20 years.
But for those two decades, Afghanistan's neighbor to the east, Pakistan, has been a key player in the regional dynamics, and stands long accused by the United States and Afghanistan of supporting Taliban insurgents.
In a moment, I will have an interview with Pakistan's prime minister, Imran Khan, but, first, some background on him and the fraught relationship with the U.S. and Afghanistan.
From the 1970s to the early 90's, Imran Khan was a professional athlete, a cricket star, guiding Pakistan's national team to victory. Now, as Pakistan's prime minister, he's leading his country at a time of regional tumult.
As the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, the Taliban is making swift territorial advances. When the Taliban recently took over a key Afghan-Pakistani border crossing, residents on the Pakistani side seemed to celebrate, waving Taliban flags and honking horns.
Recently, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made a longstanding accusation: Pakistan provides insurgents safe haven.
ASHRAF GHANI, President of Afghanistan: Intelligence estimates indicate the influx of over 10,000 jihadi fighters from Pakistan and other places in the last month, as well as support from their affiliates in the transnational terrorist organization.
Khan said he took offense.
Imran Khan, Pakistani Prime Minister:
And I feel really disappointed that we have been blamed for what is going on in Afghanistan. What is happening in Afghanistan is over two decades of conflict.
But for more than two decades, the U.S. has accused Pakistan, especially its intelligence services, of providing sanctuary and support to the Taliban.
The breaking point was a series of brazen attacks in 2011. The first, on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, killed more than 30 people. Then-U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen directly blamed Pakistan's support for the Taliban-linked Haqqani Network.
ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN (RET.), Former Joints Chiefs Chairman: The Haqqani Network, for one, acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's internal services intelligence agency.
At the time of Mullen's remarks, Khan said the U.S. should take advantage of the relationship between Haqqani and Pakistan's powerful ISI intelligence service.
I do not think that ISI controls the Haqqani Network. Yes, they would have connections with them.
And if I was the United States, I would use this connection of the ISI with the Haqqani Network to actually get them on the negotiating table.
Khan has stoked controversy with comments about sexual assault. He recently said that, in Pakistan's conservative society, women who do not cover themselves risk consequences.
It is a completely different society way of life here. So, if you raise temptation in the society to the point, and all these young guys have nowhere to go, it has consequences in the society.
Those comments spurred protests, including this one in Karachi.
Sheema Kirmani (through translator):
We do not accept these kinds of theories that, because of us and the way we dress, there is immorality, that there is rape. This is totally unacceptable.
Now to my interview with Prime Minister Khan. He was in Islamabad — Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, when we spoke early this morning.
Prime Minister Khan, thank you very much for joining us.
Let me start by asking you your assessment of the situation in Afghanistan right now, with U.S. troops almost completely out after 20 years.
Well, Judy, I think the U.S. has really messed it up in Afghanistan.
You see, first of all, they tried to look for a military solution in Afghanistan, when there never was one. And people like me who kept saying that there's no military solution, who know the history of Afghanistan, we were called — people like me were called anti-American. I was called Taliban Khan.
For anyone who objected to this way of — I don't know what the objective was in Afghanistan, whether it was to have some nation-building or democracy or liberate the women. Whatever the cause was, the way they went about it was never going to be the solution.
So, when they finally decided that there is no military solution, unfortunately, the bargaining power of the Americans or the NATO forces had gone. When there were 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, that was the time to go for a political solution.
But once they had reduced the troops to barely 10,000, and then, when they gave an exit date, the Taliban thought they had won. And so, therefore, it was very difficult for now to get them to compromise. It's very difficult to force them into a political solution, because they think that they won.
Well, whatever has happened in the past, as we said, the Taliban now is on the rise in Afghanistan.
Is that a good outcome for Afghanistan?
The only good outcome for Afghanistan is that if there is a political settlement which is inclusive, so they form some sort of a government that includes all sorts of different factions there.
Obviously, Taliban, part of that government. The worst situation in Afghanistan would be if there's a civil war and a protracted civil war. And from Pakistan's point of view, that is the worst-case scenario, because we then — we have — we face two scenarios, one, a refugee problem.
Already, Pakistan is hosting over three million Afghan refugees. And what we fear is that a protracted civil war would be more refugees. And our economic situation is not such that we can have another influx.
Secondly, the worry is that the civil war will flow into Pakistan, because the Taliban are basically ethnic Pashtuns. Now, there are more Pashtuns on our side of the border than in Afghanistan.
And so the worry is that, if this goes on, the Pashtuns on our side will be drawn into it. So, that's — and that also is the last thing we want.
And I do want to ask you about Pakistan.
But, before we leave Afghanistan, the United States has been asking your government for many years to help in the effort to limit, to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the U.S., other organizations now say they have massive amounts of evidence that Pakistan has helped the Afghan Taliban with military, with intelligence, has helped them financially.
How do you explain that? This is a terrorist group operating in Afghanistan. How do you explain the support your government has given repeatedly over the years to the Afghan Taliban?
Judy, I find this extremely unfair.
And so you should know a little bit of the history. Come 9/11, Pakistan had nothing to do with what happened, the terrorist act in New York, Pakistan, in the sense that al-Qaida was based in Afghanistan. There were no militant Taliban in Pakistan. No Pakistani was involved.
And so when Pakistan, the Pakistani government, decided to join the U.S.' war on terror, this country, took a — was devastated by that; 70,000 Pakistanis died in that war, which we had nothing to do with. We had over $150 billion lost to the economy.
It's not the only thing that's blamed, but it's an important thing that's blamed, in that the Afghan Taliban has always been able to have a safe haven next door in Pakistan.
And, again, the U.S. says it has mountains of evidence that your ISI, other elements of the Pakistan military have helped the Taliban in Afghanistan over the years.
Just in the last few days, there's a report 10,000 Pakistan fighters have crossed over the border to help the Taliban in this most recent fighting. So, this is going on right now.
Judy, for a start, this 10,000 Taliban or they call the Afghan government, say jihadi fighters have crossed over, this is absolute nonsense.
Why don't they give us evidence of this? Firstly, let me just go back. When they say that Pakistan gave safe havens, sanctuaries to Taliban, where are these safe havens? When you — when we said there are three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, who are, by the way, the same ethnic group as the Taliban, Pashtuns, now, there are camps of 500,000 people.
There are camps of 100,000 people. And Taliban are not some military outfit. They are normal civilians. And if there are some civilians in these camps, how is Pakistan supposed to hunt these people down? How can you call them sanctuaries?
Let me ask you, Mr. Prime Minister, what relationship do you want now with the United States? You have said under no circumstances would you allow the U.S. to set up the CIA to have any sort of bases in Pakistan to support counterinsurgency.
But are you saying no cooperation with the U.S. to fight terrorism?
When you say about U.S. having bases for counterterrorism, please, let me make you understand this.
When a country loses 70,000 people and is bankrupted by this war on terror, when we joined the U.S. after 2000 — after 9/11, we do not have the capacity to have any more fighting within our border or any terrorism within our country, because, when we were in the height of that war on terror, which Pakistan joined, there were suicide bombs taking place all over the country.
The businesses collapsed. Tourism collapsed. So, we are — we do — what we do not want to be is part of any conflict. Now, if there's a conflict going on in Afghanistan and there are bases in Pakistan, we then become targets. We will then become part of a conflict which we were in the last 15 years, and we do not want. We want to be partners in peace, but not in conflict.
So, what sort of relationship do you want?
What do you expect from the United States at this point? You're looking for a trading relationship. What is it that you want your relationship with the United States to be, after this very fraught period of the last 20-plus years?
Well, Judy, the last relationship was transactional.
Pakistan was more like a hired gun. The U.S. says that we paid you, we gave you aid, and that's why you were fighting this so-called war on terror.
Pakistan, on the other hand felt that here was a country which had no need to be part of this war. It loses 70,000. I mean, where — which other country has lost 70,000 people fighting for someone else's war?
So, Pakistanis felt that here we were, fighting the U.S.' war, our economy devastated. It was minuscule compared to the amount of money we lost in the economy. And yet we were blamed for the failure in Afghanistan. This is the Pakistani point of view.
Now, Pakistan's position is very straightforward. We want to help and we have helped getting the Taliban to talk to the U.S., got them on the dialogue table. We have done our bit.
Now, what we cannot afford now, if there is civil war, what the U.S. wants is U.S. bases in Pakistan if there's civil war in Afghanistan. But if there's civil war in Afghanistan, we will immediately get stuck into it. There will be terrorism within Pakistan. We do not want — apart from anything else, our country cannot afford it.
We have just recovered from a desperate economic situation. And we do not want to go through it again.
I hear that message.
At the same time, do you expect that, if the Taliban does succeed in Afghanistan, you're going to have a country next door where women, for one thing, are not allowed to have an education after the age of 8, that you're going to have a country run by a group of terrorists, in effect?
But, Judy, what are we supposed to do about it?
I mean, here were the U.S. for two decades in Afghanistan trying to force a military solution. The reason why we are in this position now is because the military solution failed. Now, what choices have we got? The best choice is that somehow we have a political settlement in Afghanistan where it is, as I repeat, an inclusive government.
So, Taliban sit down with the other side and they form an inclusive government. This is the best outcome. There is no other outcome, because the military solution has failed.
Are you prepared to accept Taliban victory next door? You're saying, in essence, there's nothing you — nothing more Pakistan can do.
Absolutely, there's nothing more we can do, except push them as much as we can for a political settlement. That's all.
But what happens in Afghanistan, we can only pray that the people of Afghanistan decide what government they want. And so we hope that that's what will happen in the end; they will form some sort of an inclusive government.
But that's for people of Afghanistan. As far as Pakistan is concerned, we have done what we can.
I do want to ask you, just take just a moment to ask you about a comment you made about the role of women in your country. You said in an interview last month that women themselves bear a large part of the responsibility for the concerning rise in the number of rape cases in Pakistan.
I want to ask you if you truly believe that. I mean, you're someone, you have lived in the West. You have traveled widely around the world. Do you believe women bear a large part of the responsibility for this?
Look, Judy, anyone who commits rape, solely and solely, that person is responsible. So let's be clear about that.
No matter whatever — how much ever a woman is provocative or whatever she wears, the person who commits rape, he is fully responsible. Never is the victim responsible.
My comments were completely taken out of context. They were simply talking about Pakistan society, where we are having a rise, a sharp rise in sex crimes. And sex crime does not include just women. More than rape are child abuse, which is going through the roof.
So my comments were in that context. And it was — I used the word purdah. In Islam, purdah does not mean just clothes. And purdah is not restricted to women only, but that is for men as well. It means bringing the temptation down in a society.
This is what I was talking about. And it was taken out of — deliberately. And I have to say, because I know all the interviews I have given. Never would I say such a stupid thing where a person who's raped is responsible for somehow — it's always the rapist that is responsible.
Do you believe that — that the importance in your country of Islam complicates your ability to do something, to take a stronger stand against violence against women?
Islam gives dignity, respect to women. In fact, let me say, having traveled all over the world, I find that, in Muslim countries, in Pakistan, even in other Muslim countries I have seen, women having — far more treated with respect and given more dignity.
You have odd cases everywhere in the world, but you look at the situation in Pakistan even now, I mean, look at the rape cases here. Compare it to Western countries. They are minuscule compared to them.
Yes, we have our issues. We have some cultural problems. Every nation has that. But that comes with cultural evolution, with education. But, as far as a woman's dignity goes, respect, I can say, after going all over the world, this society gives more respect and dignity to women.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, thank you very much. We appreciate it.
Watch the Full Episode
Broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff is the anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour. She has covered politics and other news for five decades at NBC, CNN and PBS.
Morgan Till is the Senior Producer for Foreign Affairs and Defense (Foreign Editor) at the PBS NewsHour, a position he has held since late 2015. He was for many years the lead foreign affairs producer for the program, traveling frequently to report on war, revolution, natural disasters and overseas politics. During his seven years in that position he reported from – among other places - Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Haiti, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and widely throughout Europe.
As the deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour, Dan plays a key role in helping oversee and produce the program’s foreign affairs and defense stories. His pieces have broken new ground on an array of military issues, exposing debates simmering outside the public eye.
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