Lahore - Prime Minister Imran Khan has warned the world that escalation of hostilities between Pakistan and India could end up in a catastrophe as “anything could happen when two nuclear-armed neighbours come face-to-face”.

Speaking at an event on Monday at a New York-based think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the prime minister rejected the impression that Chinese economic support to Pakistan could compromise country’s sovereignty.

He declared joining the US-led war in Afghanistan after 9/11 to be the biggest mistake of his country, and expressed regret over Washington’s not consulting Islamabad before ending talks with the Afghan Taliban.

Stressing that war is never a solution to any problem, he urged for pursuing the path of dialogue in the aftermath of the attacks on Saudi oil installations which the US has blamed on Iran.

Premier Khan, who is on a seven-day visit to the US to attend the 74th session of the UN General Assembly opening on Sept 24, also met with his British counterpart Boris Johnson, according to Foreign Office Spokesperson Dr Mohammad Faisal.

During the conversation with CFR President Richard N Haass, Imran Khan also talked about the current state of US-Pakistan relations, recent developments in occupied Kashmir, and Pakistan’s economy and country’s relationship with its neighbouring countries.

The interview started with the prime minister saying that his background in cricket had taught him the invaluable lesson of “how to struggle” and deal with setbacks.

India and Kashmir

PM Imran said both Pakistan and India were plagued by poverty and climate change. “We must focus on combating these issues instead of fighting each other,” he said, adding that he had reached out to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in an attempt to reset bilateral ties, but to no avail.

There is a dearth of trust from New Delhi when it comes to bilateral ties, he said, reiterating Pakistan’s stance of trying to normalise relations with the neighbour. He lambasted the Indian government for its repeated belligerence despite several peace overtures by Islamabad.

About Kashmir, the prime minister said the United Nations came into being to look into situations like the one developing in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK). He said the United Nations Security Council gave Kashmiris the right to self-determination. “This is why I have come here to implore the UN to help the people of Kashmir.”

“It has been over 50 days since eight million people have been cut off from the rest of the world,” the premier said while referring to the information blockade and curfew imposed by New Delhi in the Himalayan valley. “The least that I expect from the international community is to ask them to lift the curfew. It’s inhumane..and a violation of every humanitarian right of the people of Kashmir,” he lamented.

PM Imran said that whenever the Kashmir issue is raised with New Delhi they say “there is nothing to talk about.” He said that until the Indian siege of Kashmir is lifted Islamabad would not engage in dialogue with its neighbour.

Talking about the surge in Hindu extremism in India, he said, “I am more worried about India right now probably more than Pakistan as they not heading in the right direction…It is truly frightening to see.”

He said the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideology is spreading hate and discord in India at the behest of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government. “This is not the India of Nehru or Gandhi,” he added. Touching upon the rights of minorities in the country, he said, “We want to enforce the rule of law in Pakistan as every group is protected.”

Asked about rising religious extremism in Pakistan, he said that under Islamic principles each and every citizen has equal rights. PM Imran said that he envisions a Pakistan where everyone is protected by the state. He said the government is rolling out special programmes to lift women out of poverty in rural areas and empower them.

US-Pakistan ties and Afghan war

Answering a question regarding former US defence secretary James Mattis’ remark that he considered Pakistan to be “the most dangerous” among all countries he had dealt with, Prime Minister Imran said: “I do not think James Mattis fully understands why Pakistan became radicalised.

“In the 1980s, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan, helped by the United States, organised the resistance to the Soviets. And the resistance was organised by the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) training these militants who were invited from all over the Muslim world to do jihad against the Soviet Union.

“And so we created these militant groups to fight the Soviets. [...] Jihadis were heroes then. Come 1989, Soviets leave Afghanistan, the US packs up and leaves Afghanistan [...] and we were left with these groups.

“Then comes 9/11, and Pakistan again joins the US in the war on terror and now we are required to go after these groups as terrorists. They were indoctrinated that fighting foreign occupation in jihad but now when the US arrived in Afghanistan, it was supposed to be terrorism.

“So Pakistan took a real battering in this,” he said, adding that Pakistan should have stayed neutral in the conflict.

“Pakistan by joining the US after 9/11 committed one of the biggest blunders,” he said, noting that 70,000 Pakistanis had died in the ensuing violence and the country lost hundreds of billions in economy. “I think the Pakistani government should not have pledged what they could not deliver.”

The premier said he had always stressed that there could be no military solution in Afghanistan.

To a question regarding insurgents allegedly going from Pakistan to carry out attacks in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Imran said there are some 2.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and there is no actual border in the tribal region. “How do we know who is coming in and going out?” he questioned, saying Pakistan could not be expected to completely shut the border when refugees in such large numbers live there.

“I do not think it’s because of Pakistan that the US has not able to succeed in Afghanistan, simply because there is a history behind it; it was never going to happen,” he said.

The premier said it was “painful” for Pakistan that the peace deal that was about to be signed between the US and Afghan Taliban had collapsed. He also said his government found out about the talks breaking down through newspapers, and that the US “should have at least discussed” with Pakistan before calling off the talks.

He said he would emphasise in his meeting with US President Donald Trump that there will not be a military solution to the Afghan conflict. “For 19 years if you have not been able to succeed, you are not going to be able to succeed in another 19 years,” he added.

He called on Tehran and Washington to demonstrate restraint amid rising tensions. “Pakistan has seen the toll war has and it is something no country wants,” he said.

Pak Economy and Chinese influence

Asked why Pakistan repeatedly has to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for financial assistance, Premier Khan said: “The moment you have a deficit, whether it is current account or fiscal deficit, means you are not managing your economy properly [...] This inability of successive governments to manage our economy is why we keep lining up with the IMF.”

He said his government had inherited “the biggest current account deficit” in Pakistan’s history and “so the first year has been a real struggle.... I am really proud to say that we have cut down this deficit almost by 70 per cent. We now have an economy which is heading in the right direction.”

The prime minister said when his party came into power last year, Pakistan found itself to be in probably “the worst economic situation” and it was China that came to the country’s help “when we were at the rock bottom”.

“We were staring at a default,” the prime minister said, adding that China along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE had provided funds to beef up Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves.

He said the country now has the opportunity to get Chinese industries to relocate to Pakistan and bring in technology. “China has given us a great opportunity to lift ourselves up from where we are right now.... China has given us a preferential trade agreement.”

Quashing fears that Chinese investment poses a threat to country’s sovereignty, he said, How can they infringe on our sovereignty, maybe they might say not to have good ties with the US.” He said China had never interfered in Pakistan’s foreign policy or domestic affairs. “China has never demanded us to do anything,” he said.

PM Imran added that Pakistan keeps its dialogue with China private and will continue to do so. He lauded how China has been able to lift their population out of poverty, as well as, their handling of corruption in the government.