Islamabad — There’s no military solution to the long-running conflict in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said, warning little progress would be made until all sides entered into peace talks.
Abbasi voiced scepticism over US President Donald Trump’s increase in troops to assist the Afghan security forces and said Islamabad was ready to help mediate talks with the Taliban, many of whom had been allegedly trained in Pakistan.
“At the end of the day the Afghans have to sit down and talk,” Abbasi, 59, said in an interview at his home in Islamabad.
Relations between Pakistan and the US have nosedived in the past year. Pakistan has been repeatedly accused of not taking enough action against terror groups that strike its neighbours. In his first tweet of 2018, the US president on Jan. 1 flagged a cut in military aid worth about $2 billion and said Pakistan gave “lies and deceit” in return for US funding.
Abbasi hit back at charges that the nuclear-armed nation has been selective in its fight against terrorism. Following an announcement last week that 27 Taliban and Haqqani network insurgents had been handed over to Afghanistan in November in what Abbasi described as a “routine” prisoner transfer”, he said there was no evidence Pakistan was backing militants fighting across the border after a spate of violence left hundreds dead and wounded in Kabul last month.
“These are Afghan nationals who were arrested inside Pakistan, they were not involved in a terror attack on us otherwise we would have prosecuted them here, so we handed them back to the Afghans,” he said.
Successive US administrations have wrestled with the troubled Pakistan relationship. Along with providing passage into Afghanistan since the Sept. 11 attacks, Pakistan also helped capture and kill senior Al Qaida leaders. Yet it is also the place where Osama Bin Laden hid for years before being killed in a 2011 raid by US Navy Seals.
Trump’s actions have provoked outcry from Pakistani officials, who have pointed out the thousands of civilians and servicemen who have died fighting terrorism within its borders. General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the head of the powerful army, said last month Pakistan felt “betrayed” and won’t seek a restoration of American aid. Islamabad has also drawn closer to China as it finances more than $50 billion in infrastructure projects across the South Asian nation.
US military funding was already “very minimal”, Abbasi said, noting Pakistan is still owed billions of dollars in reimbursements from the Coalition Support Fund. However, Pakistan wasn’t considering closing US supply routes into landlocked Afghanistan.
Despite Trump’s stance, Abbasi said talks and intelligence cooperation is still ongoing and that a growing relationship with China shouldn’t stop that.
“They are not mutually exclusive relationships and nobody wants it that way either,” Abbasi said. “China is more of a longer term, a deeper relationship, the US is probably more transactional.”
Action has been taken against United Nations Security Council-sanctioned charities linked to Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, who was released from house arrest in Lahore in November — provoking condemnation from the White House and India.
In the last two-to-three months Pakistan has “more or less complied” with sanctions against the Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation and Jamaat-ud Dawa, an alleged front for banned militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, Abbasi said. More action against Saeed is unlikely as “we have no charges against him,” he said.
Abbasi, who became premier in August after the Supreme Court barred former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office following a corruption investigation, said tensions with the armed forces had eased since Sharif’s disqualification.
With national elections scheduled in less than six months, the government will be keen not to agitate the military, which has held power in Pakistan for almost half of its 70 years, has removed multiple elected leaders and effectively controls foreign policy.
“There was a lot of friction institutionally that built up over the past year,” Abbasi said in relatively candid comments on the military. “We have had some frank discussions — there’s much better understanding, it’s still an evolving relationship, there’s a consensus on most issues.”