–PM Imran says will persuade Taliban leadership to hold peace talks with Afghan govt
–Says ‘we are all blown over’ by US President Trump’s welcome and conversation
–Denies media censorship in Pakistan, says media enjoys complete freedom but govt wants to regulate it
–Says ISI provided information to CIA which enabled US to kill Osama bin Laden
–Hints at swapping Dr Shakil Afridi for Dr Afia Siddiqui; wants peace with India
WASHINGTON: Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday said that he would meet the Afghan Taliban leadership after returning to Pakistan and would persuade them to sit on the talks table with the Afghan government, a day after US President Donald Trump patted Pakistan on the back for cooperating with the US in bringing peace to Afghanistan.
Imran said that a Taliban delegation wanted to meet him a few months back but he did not meet them because of opposition from the Afghan government.
“Now that I have spoken to President Trump and Afghan President Ghani, I will meet the Taliban and I will try my best to get them to talk to the Afghan government,” he said, adding that he has gained their trust for professing right from the first day that the issue could only be resolved through dialogue,” Imran said while speaking at the US Institute of Peace (USIP), a day after meeting the US president at the White House.
Hailing his meeting with President Trump as a “pleasant surprise”, PM Imran said the Pakistani side was “blown over” by the US leader’s welcome and conversation.
“It was a pleasant surprise. We were all blown over. We loved the meeting,” Imran said, adding that Pakistan and the US now had the best relationship in years. “Now we will ensure that there is no communication gap,” between the two sides, he said referring to years of mistrust between the two countries in the past.
The worst phase in the Pakistan-US relationship was over, he said referring to the years when the US escalated the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan region and Pakistan fought America’s war on terror at a high human and economic cost, but was still not trusted.
Imran Khan recalled his meetings with Democrats in 2009, and said he tried to explain to them that there was going to be no military solution, but felt they had no understanding of Afghanistan.
“Fortunately this time, people now understand,” he added.
“We are all on the same page that is why we have the best relationship now in years,” Imran Khan said regarding President Trump’s ongoing quest to find a negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict. “Peace in Afghanistan will come about through peace talks,” he said.
Referring to the ongoing process of facilitating talks with the Taliban, he said, “If we all work together then this is the best chance for peace in Afghanistan.”
He said that Pakistan wanted its ties with the US based on mutual trust and as equal partners sans seeking any aid.
“Pakistan does not seek a friendship of the past, which was based on seeking aid from the US,” the prime minister said.
After his maiden visit to the US, Imran said he was happy to have a dignified relationship between the two countries with a mutual trust over peace process in Afghanistan.
He said he hated the phrase ‘aid’ when someone asked about it and termed this expression as “one of the biggest curses for his country”. The prime minister said “the dependent syndrome was the most humiliating for a country”.
“When I returned home from Saudi Arabia, everybody asked what have you got from there, as if I went there asking for money. I think it is humiliating for a country. Countries rise because of self-respect and self-esteem and no country rise by begging for money,” he said.
‘PEACE WITH INDIA’:
He also spoke about Islamabad’s efforts to launch peace bids with India.
He said the Kashmir dispute had held back development in South Asia. Kashmir should be resolved as per aspirations of Kashmiri people, he added.
“There is a solution and the solution has to be with the will of the Kashmiri people,” he said.
“Because of one issue, India and Pakistan are unable to improve their relations. Any time the two countries make any progress, some incident happens and we go back to square one,” he added.
He said that his government had reached out to all neighbouring countries to iron out differences and rebuild confidence to establish better trade ties after coming into power last year. He said that one of the biggest issues plaguing the region at the moment is poverty and it can be resolved by increasing trade between Pakistan and India.
MEDIA CENSORSHIP, PTM & MINORITIES:
He said his government had “stabilized the economy” which he inherited in a state of virtual bankruptcy.
“Now we can move ahead and start reforms,” he said, citing his government’s agenda of improving the education sector, stepping economic growth, expanding tax collection, boosting exports and narrowing fiscal account deficit.
To a question about censorship on press in Pakistan, Imran said the present government would be the most inclusive government as far as the freedom of press was concerned.
“Pakistani media is more freer than British media,” the prime minister said, adding that strengthening media watchdogs was not censorship.
He said he himself was the biggest beneficiary of free media as he forwarded his message to the people through media. But added that media should avoid personal attacks and not a become party.
“There are 70 to 80 TV channels in the country and only two or three of them are complaining of censorship,” he maintained.
When asked about the military’s crackdown on the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), Imran said that the PTM leadership had started attacking the army even though the government was making efforts to remove the sense of deprivation in the tribal people.
“We are now investing heavily in the development of the tribal districts. The tribal people have suffered a great deal in the war on terror and we are now trying to address their grievances through development,” he said.
About minorities issue, the prime minister said that the minorities had full protection in Pakistan and what the present government had done for them, no government had done before.
Referring to the case of Aasia Bibi, a blasphemy accused, the prime minister said when the Supreme Court (SC) acquitted her, thousands of protesters mainly belonging to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) came on the streets in protest, but the government took them out and put their leadership in jails.
“We are treating our minorities as equal citizens as according to the Constitution of Pakistan minorities are equal citizens of the country,” the prime minister added.
Prime Minister Imran said that his government was rebuilding the state institutions which bore the brunt of previous rulers’ unchecked corruption through money laundering. He said corruption was a major threat to Pakistan’s economy and when the PTI government came to power, the country was on the brink of being declared bankrupt.
He said the previous ruling elite had targeted the state institutions by weakening them as in the presence of strong anti-graft institutions, they could not have laundered the money abroad.
“Rebuilding these institutions may take time and we are rebuilding them,” though the process would be slow, he said.
He termed the flight of money in the developing countries through money laundering as the biggest threat than hunger and poverty.
Talking about the US-Iran tensions, he said that people do not understand the gravity of the situation. “A war between US and Iran can be catastrophic for the region,” he added.
‘SWAPPING AFRIDI WITH AFIA’:
Earlier, during an interview with Fox News, PM Imran also discussed the possibility of a prisoner swap agreement between the two countries which could lead to the exchange of Dr Afia Siddiqui with Dr Shakil Afridi.
“There are some decisions which even a prime minister finds difficult because we have an opposition but this is something that can be negotiated,” the premier said.
“We did not discuss it today but we know that the US wants Dr Shakil Afridi so we can negotiate an exchange with Dr Afia Siddiqui,” he said. He added that the issue was quite emotive as Afridi was considered a US spy in Pakistan while Pakistan and US were allies.
“We in Pakistan have always felt that we were an ally of the US but had we been given information about Osama bin Laden, we would have taken him out,” he said.
‘ISI LED US TO OBL’:
The interviewer then asked if Imran understood the skepticism around Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for leaking key information. PM Imran replied that it was the ISI which provided the information that led to Osama bin Laden. “If you ask CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], it was ISI which gave the initial location through a phone connection,” he said.
Discussing the possibility of a nuclear war with India, the premier said, “Nuclear war with India is not an option because it means self-destruction as we share a 2,500-mile border with them.”
“The people of subcontinent are aware of the dangers of a nuclear war. We had some regional tension earlier in February when Pakistan shot down an Indian fighter aircraft that illegally crossed the border,” the premier said, adding that this is why he had asked the US president to play a role in resolving the conflict.
“US is the most powerful country in the world and has the ability to mediate the longstanding Kashmir dispute between the two countries,” he said while expressing hope that India would come to the table for negotiations.
He also called upon India to abandon its nuclear weapons. “If New Delhi complies with this demand, Pakistan will not use its nuclear weapons either,” he said, adding that Islamabad has a comprehensive and effective nuclear command and control system.