NEW YORK: Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, in a talk at a US think tank on Wednesday, said Pakistan cannot condone US drone attacks on its soil.
Speaking during a meeting at the Council of Foreign Relations, Abbasi said the US needs to treat India and Pakistan equally, adding that Pakistan does possess nuclear weapons but they cannot fall into the hands of terrorists.
Abbasi, elected prime minister last month after the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court, is in New York to attend and address the United Nation’s General Assembly session.
David Sanger presided over the discussion, which featured Abbasi speaking first and then engaging in a discussion with Sanger. Following that, the premier took questions from the audience.
Talking about the economy, Abbasi said the Pakistan economy has done well in the last four years. “We’ve been able to achieve over 5.3 per cent growth. And we’ll be looking at six per cent sustained growth over the next few years,” he predicted.
Terming stability critical, he said Pakistan is a large market. “And I think it will be—it’ll be a growing market. We are projected to have a middle class of about 100 million people by 2025. There are many institutions out there that predict Pakistan to be one of the top 20 economies in the world by 2030. We are a very youthful population. Sixty per cent are less than 30 years old.”
Talking about democracy, Abbasi quipped, “Democracy has taken root in Pakistan. On July 28th, we—when we had breakfast, we had a government. When we had lunch, there was no government. So we got to the decision that we do not necessarily agree with, but we honoured it, got implemented, the prime minister left office. The party met the next day. They took the decision to nominate me as their candidate, and three days later I got elected, and here I am.”
Abbasi said democracy and stability of policy have taken root in Pakistan. “We are already vibrant and free press. Most of us believe they’re maybe too free. But that’s the reality. So that is there.”
Referring to the country’s “improved” security situation, the prime minister said, “We have taken the fight on terror to the terrorists. We have fought them. We have defeated them. We have suffered a lot. We have 6,500 martyrs in the army. We lost over 30,000 civilians, 50,000 injured. So it’s been a massive effort. It has been a very vicious war. And today over 200,000 troops are involved in that war to defeat terror on our own soil.”
Abbasi stated that the country suffered economic losses worth over $120 billion. He clarified that Pakistan fought the war with its own resources and defeated the terrorists. He also stated that nobody wants peace more in Afghanistan than Pakistan. “This perception that there are sanctuaries is absolutely not correct.”
“..we firmly believe that war is not a solution for Afghanistan. That is very clear to us. And we really want Afghan-led solution in Afghanistan, a negotiated solution.”
Discussing Pakistan’s ties with US, he said it is not a relationship that is defined by Afghanistan alone. “We have engaged with the US. We continue to engage with them to resolve any differences that come up and move forward. And we intend to partner with the US to defeat terror in the area, to find peace in Afghanistan, and provide stability to the region.”
Later, when Sanger initiated a discussion with the premier, Abbasi was asked about US President Donald Trump’s recent ‘anti-Pakistan’ statements in his new policy speech for South Asia.
“Let me just say that we’ve engaged with the Americans, with the American administration. We intend to move forward. The objective is the same: to fight terror and bring peace to Afghanistan. So that’s our policy, and I think our performance on the ground proves that—that we’ve fought terror, we defeated terror on our soil, and we intend to continue with that.
There can be differences on how we move forward, but those are differences that can be resolved. We do not believe that there is a military solution to the crisis in Afghanistan. The Afghans have to sit together and resolve the problems. So that’s how we look at that relationship.”
When Sanger mentioned Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s claims of terrorist sanctuaries and presence of Taliban leadership in Afghanistan, Abbasi responded that, “we’re already clear on the situation, that today the only cross-border penetration is from Afghanistan into Pakistan to attack our troops. As far as we are concerned, today no sanctuaries exist on Pakistani soil from which any activity takes place against Afghanistan.”
In response to another comment, the premier said Hafiz Saeed belongs to a proscribed organisation. “We have taken action against him. He’s in house arrest. In the recent by-election, the candidate did use his poster, his picture as an election poster, which is illegal to do, and action will be taken against him by the election commission.”
In response to a question of US aid, Abbasi said “I was just checking the record, and found we never billed the US forces for ground logistics or for air logistics across our territory. So any conception that there has been a massive support to the Pakistan armed forces is not correct.”
In response to a question about US bases in Pakistan, the premier remarked that all the forces operating in the region have to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty. “And bases are provided as requested. I don’t think there’s a need for bases anymore on our territory.”
When asked if Pakistan would oppose resumption of drone strikes, Abbasi said “No, no. We cannot condone that. We cannot allow that. I think the sovereignty of our territory has to be respected. And this is a decision that only the Parliament can make.”
Talking about Pakistan’s nuclear programme, Abbasi said “we have a very robust and secure command-and-control system over our strategic nuclear assets. It’s a process that has complete civilian oversight through the National Command Authority.”
“We have developed short-range nuclear weapons as a counter to the Cold Start doctrine that India has developed.”
Referring to Indian aggression along the Line of Control in Kashmir, the prime minister said it is mostly to draw attention away from the genuine struggle of the Kashmiri people.
In response to a question about the next step with regards to India, Abbasi said the “core issues have to be resolved first,” adding that Pakistan wants normal relations with India, but on the basis of trust and respect.
Abbasi also called for a similar nuclear deal with Pakistan that the US signed with India.
Talking about his ascension to the PM Office, Abbasi commented that “I can tell you I did not aspire for the job at that time. I was a reluctant candidate for the job. I can tell you that.”