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Pakistan Reels From PM’s Comments About Military’s Al-Qaeda Ties

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a press conference at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on September 24.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a press conference at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on September 24.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has gained a reputation for speaking his mind, which sometimes includes offhand remarks that turn into gaffes, memes and video clips that subsequently go viral online.

But Pakistanis are now debating their cricket-star-turned-politician’s most recent remarks about one of the most sensitive issues in the country: Pakistan’s powerful military’s links to militant groups.

Khan made headlines this week when he told a think tank audience in New York City that the Pakistani Army and the country’s main intelligence agency trained Al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants and then kept up contact with them.

“The Pakistani Army, ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], trained A-Qaeda and all these troops to fight in Afghanistan,” Khan said on September 23. “There were always links between them — there had to be links, because they trained them.”

He even hinted that the country’s spies knew about Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s presence in the country before he was killed by U.S. special forces in the northwestern Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad in May 2011.

“As far as I know, and I think there was a statement by [the U.S.] President [Barack] Obama, that the Pakistani military — the army chief, the ISI chief, had no idea about this,” he said. “Because I know because I think they were listening, you know, to their conversation the night the raid took place, and they said so. So, if there was, it was probably at low levels, who already had contacts.”

The remarks come at a sensitive time for Islamabad. It is keen to brandish its antiterrorism credentials as it faces a possible backlisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). In October, the intergovernmental money-laundering watchdog will consider whether to add Islamabad to its blacklist for failing to clamp down on militant groups and their financing in October. Pakistan is already on an FATF “gray” list.

Back home in Pakistan, his remarks attracted angry reactions. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, an opposition politician and leader of Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI), an Islamist political party, sees a conspiracy behind Khan’s statement.

“There can be no better example of how he [Imran Khan] is turning into a star witness against Pakistan by giving such statements,” he told journalists.

Rehman and other opposition politicians have accused Pakistan’s powerful military of orchestrating Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party’s win in the July 2018 parliamentary election. The Pakistani military denies meddling in politics, while the PTI denies being helped by the army or secret services. Since assuming power in August 2018, Khan and the military leaders have publicly insisted on being on the “same page” on all major policies.

But Rehman wondered aloud about what he characterized as Khan’s periodic statements implicating the military in supporting militants.

“Sometimes he says the ISI trained Al-Qaeda. On other occasions, he has said the ISI helped find Bin Laden,” he told journalists. “During an official meeting with Iranian officials, he claimed Pakistani soil is being used against Iran.”

In July, Khan told Fox News that the ISI helped track Bin Laden in Pakistan. "And yet it was ISI that gave the information which led to the location of Osama bin Laden,” Khan said. "If you ask the CIA, it was ISI which gave the initial location through the phone connection."

During a visit to Iran in April, he appeared to offer Tehran a quid pro quo. “I know Iran has suffered from terrorism [perpetrated] by groups operating from Pakistan,” he told journalists during a joint press conference with the Iranian President Hasan Rohani. “We [need to] have trust in each other that both countries will not allow any terrorist activity from their soil. We hope this will build confidence between us.”

Islamabad-based journalist Talat Hussain says that one day Khan’s blabs might come back to haunt Pakistan.

“In the coming days, this statement will be quoted to insinuate that the security of Pakistani nuclear weapons is compromised in the same manner as was the case with Osama Bin Laden,” he said. “This is a foolish statement whose implications are likely to chase us for years.”

Khan is scheduled to return to Pakistan after addressing the UN General Assembly on September 27. In Islamabad, a major political test awaits him. Rehman and other opposition politicians have threatened to flood the capital with an unprecedented protest to demand Khan step down. If the opposition acts on its threats, the protest will pose a major test for Khan’s relations with the military.