Imran Khan on Trump, Modi, and Why He Won’t Criticize China

An interview with Pakistan’s prime minister.

By , a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan delivers a speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan delivers a speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22, 2020. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Imran Khan rode a populist wave to become Pakistan’s prime minister in 2018. Since then, his tenure has been marked by economic turmoil, violence, skirmishes with neighboring India, and rising Islamic extremism. On Jan. 22, he met with Foreign Policy’s editor in chief Jonathan Tepperman at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The following conversation has been edited for brevity and syntax.

Jonathan Tepperman: How was your meeting with President Trump this morning?

Imran Khan rode a populist wave to become Pakistan’s prime minister in 2018. Since then, his tenure has been marked by economic turmoil, violence, skirmishes with neighboring India, and rising Islamic extremism. On Jan. 22, he met with Foreign Policy’s editor in chief Jonathan Tepperman at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The following conversation has been edited for brevity and syntax.

Jonathan Tepperman: How was your meeting with President Trump this morning?

Imran Khan: The No. 1 thing that is very important for the United States and for Pakistan at the moment is Afghanistan. The only other country, apart from Afghanistan, which wants peace after 40 years of conflict is Pakistan, because we get directly affected by what happens there. The tribal areas which border Afghanistan have been devastated since 9/11. And we feel that the only way we can rebuild those areas is if there is peace in Afghanistan and trade between the two countries. Of course, Afghanistan is also an economic corridor to Central Asia, so it’s very important that there is peace there.

Until recently, the U.S. believed that there was a military solution. I, for one, have always opposed this military solution. I always believed that the so-called war on terror was the wrong way to fight terrorism; I felt that it created more terrorism due to collateral damage. We were witness to that in our own country and in Pakistan’s tribal areas: the more drone attacks, the more people got killed, the more people joined the militants. I was opposed to this, and for that I was considered anti-American and pro-Taliban.

Now, the policy under President Trump is that there should be peace talks and a political settlement. So we are on the same page, and that’s why Pakistan has, for the first time, a decent relationship with the United States—because relationships are built on common objectives.

Previously, we had this awful situation where the U.S. expected Pakistan to help them win the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan should never have accepted this challenge, because we couldn’t deliver. As a result, we were divided, we lost 70,000 people killed in the war on terror, and at the end, we were held responsible for the U.S. not succeeding. Now, our objectives are the same. The United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan want peace.

JP: The last time you met, President Trump suggested he might be willing to get involved in Kashmir. You’ve called to internationalize the issue. India, of course, has always opposed it. Is there any chance it’s going to happen?

IK: I am a firm believer that military means are not a solution to ending conflicts. So from day one, I believed that the only way forward was to try to have a peace settlement. Because of my cricketing background, I probably am the one Pakistani who knows India better than anyone else and has more friendships in India than anyone. I felt that made me ideally placed to improve the relationship between the two countries, so after taking office I immediately reached out to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I was amazed by the reaction I got, which was quite weird. The subcontinent hosts the greatest number of poor people in the world, and the best way to fight poverty is to have a trading relationship between the two countries rather than spending money on arms. This is what I said to the Indian prime minister. But I was met by brick wall. Then this suicide attack in Pulwama on the Indian side of Kashmir happened, and Indian soldiers got killed. I immediately told Modi that if you can give us any actionable intelligence [that Pakistanis were involved], we will act on it. But rather than do so, they bombed us.

After Mr. Modi won a second election in 2019, he unilaterally annexed Kashmir—a disputed territory between Pakistan and India, according to the U.N. From then on, things went from bad to worse.

Let me say one last word on what’s happening in India, because I think it’s a disaster for the people, especially for the people of Kashmir, who for over five months now are literally in an open prison, kept there by 900,000 troops. It’s a disaster for India, because India is a multicultural society and a secular society. That was the vision of Mahatma Gandhi and the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

JT: India and Pakistan almost went to war last year. How close to another major conflict are we? What can you and the rest of the world do to prevent it?

IK: We’re not close to conflict right now, but it’s important that the United Nations act, that the U.S. act. The Indian election campaign, which Modi won hands down, was built on jingoism and hatred for Pakistan. So my worry is that things will get worse in India. There are protests in India against these two new citizenship laws [an amendment that fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, and a registry of citizens in Assam that requires people to prove their citizenship with paperwork]. To distract attention, they are bombing along the Line of Control. If things get worse, they might increase the bombing.

That’s why the U.S. and the United Nations must take steps. Why not send observers along the Line of Control?

JT: Trump has a very close relationship now with Prime Minister Modi. Were you worried by “Howdy, Modi”?

IK: Not by “Howdy, Modi.” Their relationship is understandable, because India is a huge market, and of course every country would like the benefits of this huge market. And that’s fine. My concern is not about the U.S.-India relationship. My concern is the direction in which India is going.

The sequence of events bears striking resemblance to what happened in Nazi Germany. Between 1930 and 1934, Germany went from a liberal democracy to a fascist, totalitarian, racist state. If you look at what is happening in India under the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] in the last five years, look where it’s heading, you’ll see the danger. And you’re talking about a huge country of 1.3 billion people that is nuclear-armed.

JT: So since we’re at the World Economic Forum, let me ask about the economy. Pakistan’s economy has crashed 13 times over the last 60 years and required an IMF bailout each time. Fitch, the credit rating agency, recently gave Pakistan a B rating, saying its economy is, “constrained by structural weaknesses, reflected in weak development … and governance indicators.” The WEF’s brand new social mobility index ranks Pakistan 79th, below Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and India. Pakistan is among the lowest investment rates in the world, and last year it imported twice as much as it exported. You came into office promising a new Pakistan. What kind of reforms are you making to break this cycle and fix the economy? And why should investors have any more confidence this time than in the past?

IK: Pakistan in the 1960s was one of the fastest-growing countries in Asia, industrializing faster than anyone else. It was a model which was copied by a lot of countries. My contention is that it’s not a lack of resources that make a country poor. My contention is that it is corruption. First, corruption destroys state institutions. The justice system, the accountability bureau, the tax collection system have to be destroyed for officials to make money.

Second, because you have to take ill-gotten money out of the country or else it will be spotted. So money laundering starts putting pressure on the currency. And when the currency devalues, it leads to inflation, more poverty, and then the money that should be spent on human development invariably—and I can tell you from our experience—goes into mega projects that feature mega kickbacks.

What we are trying to do now is, No. 1, to strengthen state institutions. We have conducted a big accountability drive, which has never happened in Pakistan before. Second, we have tightened up the laws on money laundering.

Even more important, we have changed the direction of the country. We used to have these boom and bust cycles because we had a growth rate which was artificial, because it was led by imports. And we inherited the biggest current account deficit. We’ve cut it down by 70 percent. We’ve brought down our imports. We had to adjust our currency to make our exports more competitive with the other countries. And for the first time, exports, which were stagnant for five years, are showing signs of improvement. And our currency is stable. Our stock market is the highest in a year. And our investment in just two years has gone up 200 percent. Obviously, there’s a lot of hard work remaining. But I think we are headed in the right direction.

JT: And how much can you do to reform when the military remains so powerful and retains such vast business interests?

IK: I can say that this is probably the first government that is totally supported by our military. There’s no issue between the civilian government and the military, and the reason is that I think there is a broader trust there. The reason why the previous clashes used to take place was that when the civilian government started making money, the military had these intelligence agencies which knew what was going on. So therefore, there was always a clash—not because the military was interfering in the government, but because the civilian leadership were vulnerable because the military knew the extent of their corruption, so they wanted to control the military. Now we have their complete support.

JT: You’ve been very vocal about criticizing India’s treatment of its Muslims and the oppression of Muslims around the world, with one notable exception: China. Why have you been so quiet about the persecution of China’s Muslims in Xinjiang and elsewhere?

IK: Well, two reasons. One main reason is that the scale of what is going on in China—and frankly, I don’t know much about it, I just occasionally read about it—is nothing compared to what is happening in Kashmir.

JT: With all due respect, we’re talking about some 1 million to 2 million people being detained in Xinjiang. That’s not nothing.

IK: But what is happening in Kashmir is 8 million people under siege for five months. Over the last 30 years, about 100,000 people have been killed in Kashmir. And all the top [Kashmiri] leadership is in jail. So it’s the scale of what is happening.

As far as the Uighurs, look—China has helped us. China came to help our government when we were at the rock bottom. So we are really grateful to the Chinese government, and we decided that whatever issues we will have with China, we will deal with them privately. We will not go public.

JT: The U.S. and others have warned that China is setting up Pakistan for a debt trap, as Sri Lanka and others have fallen into. What are you doing to prevent that?

IK: My finance minister is sitting here. Can you please tell them exactly what is the component of Chinese debt?

Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh: Well, first of all, we have to recognize what China is doing in Pakistan. Economic projects. And the key component of that is building a port. And the idea is to promote exports to Africa

JT: But China has ended up owning the port it built in Sri Lanka.

AHS: No, that’s not true. The port belongs to the people and government of Pakistan. Obviously, you need a port to operate, and the international experience shows that it’s better than government bureaucrats to have well-run private companies. So that is the spirit.

The other point I want to make is that this network of roads to the port will benefit Pakistani society. We are inviting foreign investment from every country, including the U.S. We are building this network of roads, ports, and electricity plants not meant exclusively for the Chinese.

JT: Are terrorist groups like the Haqqani network currently operating in Pakistan?

IK: Absolutely not. When I first became the prime minister, India told us that these groups are operating from within Pakistan. When I spoke to the prime minister, I said, “You point out, where are these groups.” When the Americans asked us about these groups, we said, “You come and tell us where these safe havens are.” I can proudly say that they are a legacy of the past.

JT: Freedom House this year ranked Pakistan as “partly free,” in part because of the treatment of journalists there, who report an increase of harassment and intimidation by the security forces in the last year. What are you going to do about it?

IK: I invite you to come to Pakistan. The criticism the prime minister has faced, the government has faced from the press has also included serious libel. Look at what the media has printed. I can honestly say that no democracy would allow this sort of thing. I spent a lot of time in England. I was in university there. Their libel laws are such that no one can get away with something like that. Imagine someone going on television there saying that, “I’ve just heard that the prime minister’s wife has left him.” You say that in England, and there are consequences. If anything, we need regulations on the media. There’s nothing better than criticism. Criticism is the difference between a democracy and dictatorship. But what my government has faced is propaganda. And we find ourselves defenseless, because we can’t protect ourselves. They accused me of something illegal. For one year, I have been trying to get justice from the watchdog body. And the prime minister hasn’t got justice. So this is all wrong. In the past, there might have been issues, but I honestly feel that the Pakistani media is more vibrant and free than any other media in the world.

Jonathan Tepperman is a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy and the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems. Twitter: @j_tepperman

More from Foreign Policy

An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation.

The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

Snazzy weapons mean a lot less if you don’t have friends.

German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Panzers, Beans, and Bullets

This wargame explains how Russia really stopped Hitler.

19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae.

America’s Collapsing Meritocracy Is a Recipe for Revolt

Chinese history shows what happens when an old system loses its force.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces.

‘It Will Not Be Just a Civil War’

Afghanistan’s foreign minister on what may await his country after the U.S. withdrawal.