Imran Khan, a onetime cricket star, led the life of a glamorous playboy before he turned to Pakistani politics. This summer, after years in the opposition and then as a member of the coalition government in Islamabad, he finally captured the premiership. He inherits it with a daunting list of challenges for his country, including poverty, terrorism and corruption. This past week, President Donald Trump – who has traded Twitter barbs with Khan and cut military assistance to Pakistan – asked him to help bring the Afghan Taliban to peace talks. On the porch outside his home here, he gave his first foreign interview as prime minister to The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth. Edited excerpts follow.
Q. What are you planning to do about your country’s relationship with the U.S., which has been deteriorating and has involved a social media war with the president? He wrote in January that “the United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
A. It was not really a Twitter war, it was just setting the record right. [Khan wrote on the site this fall: “He needs to be informed abt historical facts. Pak has suffered enough fighting US’s war. Now we will do what is best for our people & our interests.”] The exchange was about being blamed for deeply flawed U.S. policies – the military approach to Afghanistan.
Q. He wasn’t blaming you. He was blaming your predecessors.
A. No, he was saying Pakistan was the reason for these sanctuaries [for Taliban leaders]. There are no sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Q. Every U.S. official says there are Taliban leaders living in Pakistan.
A. When I came into power, I got a complete briefing from the security forces. They said that we have time and time again asked the Americans, “Can you tell us where the sanctuaries are, and we will go after them?” There are no sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Q. Do you believe that?
A. We have 2.7 million Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan. They live in big refugee camps.
Q. But the Americans aren’t stupid, come on.
A. But where are these people? Our border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has the greatest amount of surveillance. The U.S. has satellites and drones. These people crossing would be seen.
Q. The U.S. government is saying it would just like Pakistan to cut it out.
A. First, there are no sanctuaries. If there are a few hundred, maybe 2,000 to 3,000 Taliban who move into Pakistan, they could easily move into these Afghan refugee camps.
Q. President Trump wrote you a letter this week asking for your assistance in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. What is your reply?
A. Peace in Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interest. We will do everything.
Q. You’ll put pressure on the Taliban to get them to come?
A. We will try our best. Putting pressure on the Taliban is easier said than done. Bear in mind that about 40 percent of Afghanistan is now out of the government’s hands.
Q. American officials say that Pakistan is harboring leaders of the Taliban.
A. I have never understood these accusations. Pakistan had nothing to do with 9/11. Al-Qaida was in Afghanistan. No Pakistani was involved. And yet Pakistan was asked to participate in the U.S. war. There were a lot of people in Pakistan who opposed it, including me. In the 1980s, we collaborated with the U.S. in the Soviet jihad there. Then, in 1989, when the Soviets packed up and left, the U.S. did too. Pakistan was left with militant groups and 4 million Afghan refugees. If we had stayed neutral after 9/11, I reckon we would have saved ourselves from the devastation that took place afterward. By becoming the front-line state for the U.S. in the war on terror, this country went through hell. Over 80,000 people died in the war, and estimates are that over $150 billion was lost in the economy. Investors wouldn’t come, nor would sports teams. Pakistan was known as the most dangerous place in the world.
Q. Nevertheless, we are where we are. It appears the Americans want peace talks now in Afghanistan to bring about a settlement so the U.S. troops can leave. Do you want to see them go?
A. I talked for years about how there was no military solution in Afghanistan, and they called me “Taliban Khan.” If you did not agree with the U.S. policy, you were [thought to be] anti-American. Now I’m happy that everyone realizes there is only a political solution . . . From Pakistan’s point of view, we do not want the Americans to leave Afghanistan in a hurry like they did in 1989.
A. The last thing we want is to have chaos in Afghanistan. There should be a settlement this time. In 1989, what happened was the Taliban emerged out of the chaos.
Q. There are not many American troops in Afghanistan now.
A. Yes, but the Afghan army is being supported by U.S. dollars. The Taliban clearly realize that for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, they will need American help.
Q. You get the feeling from Trump’s tweets that he’s done with Afghanistan.
A. This should have happened a long time ago.
Q. Do you have a vision of what you want Pakistan’s relationship with the United States to be? Or are you trying to hedge your bets by growing closer to China?
A. I would never want to have a relationship where Pakistan is treated like a hired gun – given money to fight someone else’s war. We should never put ourselves in this position again. It not only cost us human lives, devastation of our tribal areas, but it also cost us our dignity. We would like a proper relationship with the U.S.
Q. What does that mean?
A. For instance, our relationship with China is not one-dimensional. It’s a trade relationship between two countries. We want a similar relationship with the U.S.
Q. Some people think you’re trying to hedge your bets using China.
A. The U.S. has basically pushed Pakistan away –
Q. You’ve been very anti-U.S. over the years.
A. If you do not agree with U.S. policies, it does not mean you’re anti-American. This is a very imperialistic approach. “You’re either with me or against me.”
Q. You have made statements about the U.S. drone attacks.
A. Drone attacks! Who would not be against drone attacks? Who would allow a drone attack in their country when, with one attack, you kill one terrorist and 10 friends and neighbors? Has there ever been a case of a country being bombed by its own ally? Of course I objected to it. All it did was create more anti-Americanism.
Q. You also did not approve of the U.S. killing Osama bin Laden. You called it a “coldblooded murder.”
A. It wasn’t killing Osama bin Laden – it was not trusting Pakistan. It was humiliating that we were losing our soldiers and civilians and [suffering terrorist] bomb attacks because we were participating in the U.S. war, and then our ally did not trust us to kill bin Laden. They should have tipped off Pakistan. We did not know whether we were a friend or a foe.
Q. Would you have been OK with it if the U.S. had tipped off Pakistan?
A. Of course . . . I don’t know where this came from, “coldblooded murder.”
Q. That’s what you were reported as saying in the media.
A. I don’t remember that, but I do remember that not just me, most Pakistanis felt deeply humiliated that we were not trusted, implying that we were complicit in it.
Q. Do you think Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S. should warm up?
A. Who would not want to be friends with a superpower?
Q. To be honest with you, officials across the board – Democrats and Republicans – agree with Trump about the fact that the past Pakistani governments have lied to them.
A. They’ve been misinformed. Is it possible that the greatest military machine in the history of mankind – 150,000 NATO troops with the best equipment and over $1 trillion – are they saying that just a few thousand Pakistani insurgents are the reason they didn’t win in Afghanistan? The United States expected Pakistan to take on the Afghan Taliban. But the Afghan Taliban were not hitting Pakistan. Tehrik-e-Taliban [a Pakistani branch of the Taliban] and al-Qaida were hitting us.
Q. Recently, your government arrested the head of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party, Khadim Hussain Rizvi. He elicited riots in the streets after your Supreme Court overturned the sentence of a Christian woman sentenced to death on a blasphemy charge. Why did you order the arrest, and why do you think it’s important?
A. It’s a straightforward thing. I had gone on television and warned everyone that we will stand by the Supreme Court verdict. If you don’t stand by what the Supreme Court says, then there’s no state left. The head of the TLP then passed a death sentence on the Supreme Court judges and kept saying that they should be killed.
Q. Your predecessors left you in a terrible financial situation – your country is running a serious current account deficit.
A. In 2013, when the previous government came to power, the current account deficit was $2.5 billion. When we came to power in 2018, it was $19 billion – a huge deficit, especially in a country with falling exports. The immediate thing has been stabilizing the economy.
Q. After your election, you started traveling to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China.
A. We needed support for propping up our foreign currency reserves.
Q. You got some money on your travels?
A. We got some.
Q. The media reports that Saudi Arabia gave you $3 billion in cash and $3 billion in oil credits.
A. Yes. We have received some from all three countries.
Q. For the UAE and China, you can’t find figures.
A. Those governments want to keep it confidential. We raised money, but we are talking to the IMF [International Monetary Fund]. We do not want to have conditions imposed on us which would cause more unemployment and inflation.
Q. Are you talking about austerity?
A. Some of the IMF conditions are likely to harm the common man – that’s what I’m worried about.
Q. Do you think the negotiations will work out?
A. We have two scenarios: one with the IMF and one without.
Q. Isn’t it unrealistic to say “without the IMF”?
A. In the last 30 years, we’ve had 16 IMF programs. If we go with the IMF, we will make sure this is the last time. Pakistan has never made the structural changes that are needed. Now we have embarked on structural reforms. Already exports are picking up, remittances are going up. We need higher exports, and we are curbing our imports. Already, we have investors coming into Pakistan.
Q. Don’t you need to make more people pay taxes?
A. We are making major reforms in our tax collection – getting more people to pay taxes. We want people to be able to make money here. In the 1960s, we were growing fast, and then in the 1970s, [former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto came in with a socialist program. Somehow the mind-set became anti-wealth-creation. This has persisted, sadly, in our bureaucracy and in our political class. We want to make Pakistan an easy place to invest in so that people can utilize our young population.
Q. Do you see signs of direct foreign investment?
A. Yes, Exxon has come back to Pakistan after 27 years, and they’re doing a big exploration for us. PepsiCo has put extra investments in Pakistan.
A. I guess because we are a clean government. We won’t be asking them for money.
Q. You founded your party, but it took you 22 years to reach the top.
A. It was a long struggle. For 15 years, it was a very small party. I had only one seat in Parliament. Then about seven years ago, suddenly it was an idea whose time had come.
Q. Why did you persist? You were a cricket star, and you had a great life in England.
A. Because I am part of the first generation of Pakistanis who grew up very proud of our country. Pakistan in the 1960s was an example for the developing world. Then a calamity hit us in 1971, and Pakistan broke up [after Bangladesh won its independence]. From the mid-1980s onwards, we were hit with growing corruption. Corruption goes into megaprojects which have mega-kickbacks. When your political leadership makes money, it cannot park the money in the country because it will be visible. [Past leaders] took that money out of the country, which means the country ends up getting short of foreign exchange. Once your leadership starts making money, it goes right down to every level.
Q. How do you reverse that?
A. My struggle was all about fighting corruption. Corruption you fight from the top, then you build strong state institutions.
Q. You threw out all sorts of gestures to India shortly after you came to office, but India dismissed them.
A. I know, because India has elections coming up. The ruling party has an anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan approach. They rebuffed all my overtures.
Q. India really wants to see the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai bombing prosecuted. The mastermind, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, a leader of the terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba, was released on bail in Pakistan while a nine-year trial has dragged on for six other suspects, with no results.
A. We also want something done about the bombers of Mumbai. I have asked our government to find out the status of the case. Resolving that case is in our interest because it was an act of terrorism. I have opened a visa-free peace corridor with India called Kartarpur [so that Indian Sikhs can visit a holy shrine in Pakistan]. Let’s hope that after the election is over, we can again resume talks with India.
Q. Your main aim is to eliminate poverty in your country?
A. I want to make Pakistan an equitable, just society. I believe in a welfare state. I would be on the opposite side of President Donald Trump in terms of economic policy, probably closer to Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Q. How were your views formed?
A. I went as an 18-year-old to play cricket in England. It was the first time I saw a welfare state. It cared for the underprivileged, for the people who can’t compete in the race.