Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan defended Friday his government’s efforts to promote a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan, rebutting allegations that Islamabad was backing the Taliban’s violent insurgency to fuel hostilities in the neighboring country.
Khan spoke at an international regional connectivity conference hosted by Uzbekistan, shortly after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addressed the event and accused Pakistan of “playing a negative” role in the war.
The Afghan leader said that “intelligence estimates indicate the influx of over 10,000 jihadi fighters from Pakistan and other places in the last month.” Ghani went on to allege that despite pledges and assurances, Khan’s government had failed to influence the Taliban to “negotiate seriously” to find an end to the Afghan war.
Khan responded by saying he was “disappointed” by the Afghan president’s “extremely unfair” allegations, insisting that Pakistan had suffered 70,000 casualties in the last 15 years in its own battle against terrorism and that its fragile national economic progress could ill afford a prolonged instability in the immediate neighborhood.
“President Ghani, let me just say that the country that is going to be most affected by turmoil in Afghanistan is Pakistan,” he said. “The last thing Pakistan wants is more conflict … and turbulence in Afghanistan.”
The prime minister stressed that “no country has tried harder” to bring the Taliban to the dialogue table than Pakistan. “Short of taking military action against Taliban [leaders living] in Pakistan, we have made every effort to get them [to] the dialogue table and to have peaceful settlement there.”
Taliban ‘sensing victory’
Khan emphasized that the two decades of conflict, deep divisions among Afghans and the U.S. policy of seeking a military solution to the war are to blame, not Pakistan.
“When there were 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, that was the time to ask the Taliban to come [to] the table,” Khan said. “Why are the Taliban going to compromise when the [troop] exit date was given [by the U.S.], with only a few thousand American troops left? Why would they listen to us when they are sensing victory?”
He argued a peaceful Afghanistan is in the interest of all its neighbors.
“There are already 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. We’re petrified that there will be another flow of refugees coming in. We don’t have the capacity or the economic strength to bear another inflow of refugees. So, I can assure you again if any country is trying its best out of all the countries in the world, it’s Pakistan today,” Khan noted.
U.S. and NATO allied troops plan to fully withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of next month after nearly 20 years of engagement in the war with the Taliban. The exit, which began formally on May 1, is an outcome of Washington’s bilateral peace agreement with the insurgents that the two sides signed in February 2020.
Pakistan is credited with bringing the Taliban to the table for negotiations with the U.S. that culminated in the deal. The understanding also encouraged the insurgents to open direct peace talks with representatives of the Ghani government in Qatar last September. But the intra-Afghan dialogue has had little success.
Pakistan officials insist the pace of the U.S. military exit should have matched the pace of the peace talks. They argue the rapid troop withdrawal has diminished whatever leverage Islamabad had over the Taliban.
The Taliban have captured scores of districts and expanded insurgent influence to swaths of landlocked Afghanistan since the foreign troops started leaving the country two months ago. The insurgents have also seized control of most of the border crossings with neighboring countries, including a major trade route with Pakistan.
The intensified conflict has drawn fears of a full-fledged Afghan civil war, prompting the U.S. and regional countries to step up diplomatic efforts to press the warring sides to agree on a peace deal without delay.
On the sidelines of Friday’s connectivity conference in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan established a new quadrilateral diplomatic platform to support Afghan peace efforts and boost regional economic connectivity.
“The parties consider long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan critical to regional connectivity and agree that peace and regional connectivity are mutually reinforcing,” said a joint statement.
U.S. special envoy for Afghan peace Zalmay Khalilzad also attended the event organized to enhance connectivity between South and Central Asia.
The United States and the five participating Central Asia nations, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, in a joint statement issued at the end of the Tashkent conference, affirmed their commitment “to strengthening the region’s security and stability, including through Afghan peace negotiations.” It also reiterated that there is no support for the imposition by force of a new government in Afghanistan.