The AP Interview: New Pakistani FM wants better relations with US

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UN – Pakistan’s new foreign minister says the United States and its country must overcome past tensions with Afghanistan and enter into a new engagement after years of tensions under former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 33-year-old son of slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, spoke in an interview with The Associated Press in New York, where he was attending a meeting at the UN headquarters this week on the global food crisis. He also held talks with top diplomats, including an hour-long meeting with US Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

Bhutto described the meeting with Zardari as “very encouraging and very positive and fruitful.”

“We believe that Pakistan must be involved with the United States at all levels,” he said. “This meeting was a really important first step.”

Bhutto Zardari is the vice-president of one of the two largest parties in Pakistan’s discriminatory ruling coalition, whose political spectrum ranges from left to radical. The coalition removed Khan in a no-confidence vote on 10 April. Shahbaz Sharif, the leader of the other main party, replaced him as Prime Minister.

US-Pakistan relations deteriorated under Khan, who, as prime minister, exploited anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, which has spread since the 9/11 terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda and the US war on terror. The US operation to assassinate al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 angered many of the country’s extremists.

Khan accused the Biden administration of colluding with the opposition to oust him, a claim the administration denies.

Afghanistan has also created mistrust between the two countries. Washington thinks Islamabad has done little to ensure peace when the United States and NATO withdraw their troops from Afghanistan; Pakistan insists it has done its best for peace and blames US for abrupt withdrawal. Following the American withdrawal, the Taliban seized Kabul in August and seized power.

Bhutto Zardari said that in the past Pakistan-US relations were “very colorful because of the events in Afghanistan, geopolitical considerations, and now is the time for us to move beyond that to engage in a wider, deeper and more meaningful relationship.”

Under Khan, Pakistan pressured the world to engage with the Taliban after taking power in Afghanistan, and Bhutto Zardari said his country would continue to do so.

“No matter what we feel about the governance of Afghanistan, the world cannot abandon the Afghan people and must immediately address the country’s humanitarian crisis and crumbling economy,” he said. The complete collapse of the Afghan economy would be a disaster for Afghanistan, Pakistan and the international community, he said, adding that he was concerned that many Afghans would flee the country.

Pakistan is also urging the Taliban to abide by their international commitments that the country will not be used for terrorism, that girls and women will be educated and that they will form an inclusive government, he said.

The Taliban, however, has taken a tougher line in recent weeks by imposing new sanctions on women. At the same time, tensions between the Taliban and Pakistan have risen over the presence of militants based in Afghanistan.

Bhutto Zardari said the more the humanitarian crisis subsides and the economy is saved from destruction, the “more likely we are to succeed in our pursuit of women’s rights and the more likely we are to succeed in our fight against terrorism.”

He said his focus in talks with Blinken was on increasing trade, especially agriculture, information technology and energy. She says she looks forward to working with the United States on initiatives to empower women and women entrepreneurs.

On economic, defense and military coordination, Bhutto Zardari said, “If we are involved, we can move in a more positive direction.”

Asked about Khan’s anti-US rhetoric, Bhutto denied allegations of American collusion behind his ouster. He called it a “fictional conspiracy theory based on a big lie” to explain his removal.

“I am particularly opposed to the politics of hatred, division and polarization,” he said. “If we consistently pursue a policy of ‘you with us or against us’, be it internationally or domestically, I do not believe it is in the interest of the people of Pakistan.”

He said he believed that Pakistanis understood that their country needed to be involved with the United States and all countries in order to be democratic and move forward economically.

US President Joe Biden has strengthened ties with Pakistan’s arch-rival India, but Bhutto Zardari has said Pakistan is not “jealous” of their relationship. “We believe the world is big enough for both Pakistan and India,” he said.

Biden will meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of Australia and Japan in Tokyo on May 24 at a summit of the so-called Quad, an Indo-Pacific alliance that China sees as an effort to control its economic growth and influence.

Pakistan has very close economic and military ties with neighboring China. Bhutto Zardari said he did not think growing ties with the United States would harm his relationship with Beijing.

Pakistan has resisted a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the withdrawal of troops. Bhutto Zardari said Pakistan relied heavily on Ukraine’s wheat and fertilizer, which had suffered from rising food prices, and called for diplomacy to end the war.

Bhutto Zardari recalls the legacy of his mother and grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who led Pakistan in the 1970s and was ousted and executed by the military. He called them “huge personalities on the world stage” and said he felt “burdened by history.”

“What inspires and drives me is the pursuit of their unfinished mission,” he said. “I hope that we will meet the expectations of the people of Pakistan” who aspired for true democracy and fought for their economic, political and human rights.

“These are the ideals we love and we work every day,” said Bhutto Zardari.

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