Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said Tuesday he would meet with the Taliban after returning to his country, as part of efforts to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan.
Khan spoke in Washington on his first official trip to the United States, where President Donald Trump hosted him at the White House a day earlier. He said he had also spoken with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and now, when he goes back, “I will meet the Taliban and I will try my best to get them to talk to the Afghan government.”
Meanwhile Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Tuesday in Kabul that the United States should clarify remarks President Donald Trump made about Afghanistan, including a claim he could easily win the war but didn’t “want to kill 10 million people.”
No military solution
Speaking at the US Institute for Peace, a bipartisan federal body, Khan said he had been contacted by the Islamist extremist Afghan Taliban “a few months back,” after his election win in July 2018, but did not take a meeting at that time because Kabul was not in favor of it.
The militants reached out to him “because I always maintained there was no military solution” to the war in Afghanistan, he said.
“So because of that, I had a certain amount of credibility amongst them,” added Khan.
Khan earlier Tuesday met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who emphasized the importance of working together and “Pakistan’s significant role in supporting the Afghan peace process and counterterrorism,” according to a US statement.
The US peace envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, arrived in Kabul on Tuesday ahead of a trip to the Qatari capital Doha for a new round of direct talks with the Taliban.
Khalilzad has had several meetings with the Taliban in the past year, the most recent being on July 9 in Doha.
But the major hurdle has so far been the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate directly with the Afghan government.
‘It’s not going to be easy’
“It’s not going to be easy because there’s no centralized command, it’s a devolved movement,” Khan cautioned about the insurgent group.
“But we feel that if we all work together, we feel this is the best chance of there to be peace in Afghanistan.”
Khan also stressed that Afghanistan’s presidential election in September “must be an inclusive election where the Taliban also participate.”
A breakthrough could pave the way for a withdrawal of international troops about 18 years after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, which led the US to launch an offensive that dislodged the Taliban government from Kabul.
Pakistan was the Taliban’s main sponsor when it seized power in Afghanistan during the 1990s, and its ongoing influence over the group is seen as key to facilitating a political settlement.
This influence has also opened Pakistan up to accusations that it is fueling the fighting in Afghanistan through the use of militant proxies such as the Taliban-allied Haqqani group.
Khan made an unusual on-the-record admission that Pakistan had in the past pursued this policy, which it calls “strategic depth,” because it feared encirclement with a government in Kabul that had fallen under Indian influence.
But he insisted that was no longer the policy.
“Today, there is no concept in Pakistan of ‘strategic depth’ because we feel that by interfering in Afghanistan … we have actually done a lot of damage to our own country,” he said.
Trump comments spark outrage
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Tuesday in Kabul that the United States should clarify controversial Trump statements, made a day earlier alongside Khan at the White House, including that he could end the war in a matter of days but “Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth.”
His comments sparked outrage in Afghanistan.
The war-weary and traumatized population is already worried about a precipitous pull-out of US forces – after nearly 18 years – and whether that means a quick return to rule by the Islamic extremist Taliban, and civil war.
“The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan calls for clarification on the US president’s statements expressed at a meeting with the Pakistan prime minister, via diplomatic means and channels,” Ghani’s office said in a statement.
Afghanistan “would be gone. It would be over in literally, in 10 days”, Trump said. He added: “I don’t want to go that route,” said he didn’t want to kill millions.
The insurgents – who now control or influence about half of Afghanistan’s territory — have been talking to Washington about a possible deal that would see foreign military forces quit in return for various security guarantees.
Trump also said Pakistan would help the US “extricate” itself from Afghanistan, adding there was “tremendous potential” in the relationship between Washington and Islamabad.
Ghani is furious about being continually sidelined by the US in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban.
‘Threatened and humiliated’
“While the Afghan government supports the US efforts for ensuring peace in Afghanistan, the government underscores that foreign heads of state cannot determine Afghanistan’s fate in absence of the Afghan leadership,” Ghani’s office said.
Some Afghans – including former president Hamid Karzai – took to social media to vent about Trump’s comments.
“We are the Pamirs! You can’t wipe out ‘The Roof of the World,'” Karzai said on Twitter.
Facebook user Mohd Farhad wrote that he felt “shocked, threatened and humiliated. We trusted Americans to help us in the war against terror, and now President Trump is threatening us with genocide.”
A Taliban spokesman, in Pashto and in English, late Tuesday condemned Trump’s remarks and urged practical steps towards a solution “instead of failed policies and impractical hubris.”
The dream of military victory “was taken to the grave by Genghis, British and the former Soviet leaders. On the contrary, their empires were wiped off the face of this earth but the Afghan nation proudly endured and will continue to endure,” the spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid said, referring to past foreign campaigns in the country.
Even as the US pushes for a deal, violence in Afghanistan has in recent weeks intensified. Both Afghan forces and the Taliban claim to have inflicted heavy casualties on each other.