Pakistan’s prime minister says that America’s accelerated troop exit from Afghanistan has left Washington with no “bargaining power” for arranging a peace deal between warring Afghans.
“I think the U.S. has really messed it up in Afghanistan,” Imran Khan said in an interview with PBS NewsHour aired on Tuesday night.
Khan stressed that the United States and NATO allies had about 150,000 troops in Afghanistan and that was the time when they ought to go for a political solution rather than trying to militarily end the war with the Taliban insurgency there.
“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 (the Taliban) to compromise,” he told the American broadcaster.
President Joe Biden said earlier this month that “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”
The Taliban has captured vast areas across Afghanistan, including key trade routes with neighboring countries, since U.S.-led foreign troops officially began leaving the country in early May.
The international military drawdown has largely been completed and all American as well as allied troops will have left Afghanistan by the end of August under orders from Biden amid fears the Taliban could regain control of the war-ravaged country.
“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,” Khan said.
U.S. and Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan of allowing the Taliban to use sanctuaries in the neighboring country to direct attacks inside Afghanistan, charges Islamabad denies.
Khan’s government maintains it has used whatever leverage Islamabad had over the Taliban to bring them to the table for peace talks with Washington. The negotiations culminated in the February 2020 deal, setting the stage for all American troops to withdraw from the Afghan war after 20 years.
But the ensuing peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government have met with little success and largely stalled.
“Absolutely, there's nothing more we can do, except push them as much as we can for a political settlement. That's all,” Khan told the PBS show when asked if Pakistan needs to do more to press the Taliban to end their violent campaign.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani earlier in the month alleged 10,000 jihadi fighters have recently entered his country from sanctuaries in Pakistan and other areas to join Taliban ranks.
“This is absolute nonsense,” Khan responded. “Why don't they give us evidence of this? When they say that Pakistan gave safe havens, sanctuaries to (the) Taliban, where are these safe havens?,” he asked.
The prime minister went on to explain insurgents could hide among the refugee camps in Pakistan that still host three million Afghans, saying the Taliban constitute the majority in the refugee population.
“(The) 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?” he asked.
Khan feared a “protracted civil war” would pose security challenges to Pakistan and could trigger a fresh refugee influx that his country could ill-afford due to its economic challenges.
He defended his decision to not allow the U.S. to establish military bases on Pakistani soil for anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan after all American troops leave the neighboring country.
Khan explained that Pakistan’s decision to join the U.S.-led war on terrorism after the September 11, 2001 strikes against America triggered a domestic militant backlash, killing 70,000 Pakistanis and inflicting an estimated $150 billion in losses to the national economy.
“Now, if there's a conflict going on in Afghanistan and there are (U.S.) bases in Pakistan, we then become targets,” he said.
“We want to be partners in peace, but not in conflict,” Khan emphasized when asked what kind of relationship Islamabad wants with Washington.
Khan’s interview came while his national security advisor, Moeed Yusuf, is in Washington for official talks with his U.S. counterpart, Jake Sullivan, on how to move a traditionally rollercoaster bilateral relationship. The head of the Pakistani spy agency is also said to be accompanying Yusuf.