TANZANIA – Pakistan’s new foreign minister says the United States and his country must move beyond past tensions over Afghanistan and are entering a new engagement after years of strained relations under former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 33-year-old son of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, spoke in an interview with The Associated Press in New York, where he was attending meetings this week on the global food crisis at U.N. headquarters. He has also held talks with top diplomats, including a one-hour discussion with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Bhutto Zardari called the meeting with Blinken “very encouraging and very positive and productive.”
“We believe that Pakistan must continue to engage with the United States at all levels,” he said. “This meeting was indeed an important first step.”
Bhutto Zardari co-chairs one of the two largest parties in Pakistan’s disparate governing coalition, which spans the political spectrum from the left to the radically religious. The coalition removed Khan in a no-confidence vote on April 10. Shahbaz Sharif, the leader of the other major party, replaced Khan as prime minister.
U.S.-Pakistani ties deteriorated under Khan, who as prime minister tapped into anti-American sentiment in Pakistan that has spread ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks by al-Qaida, and the U.S. war on terror. The 2011 American raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan angered many hard-liners in the country.
Khan accused the Biden administration of colluding with the opposition to oust him, a claim the administration denies.
Afghanistan also raised mistrust between the two countries. Washington felt Islamabad did too little to help ensure peace as the U.S. and NATO withdrew their troops from Afghanistan; Pakistan insists it did all it could to broker peace and blamed the abrupt U.S. pullout. During the final weeks of the American withdrawal, the Taliban overran Kabul in mid-August and seized power.
Bhutto Zardari said the Pakistan-U.S. relationship in the past had been “too colored by the events in Afghanistan, of the geopolitical considerations, and it’s time for us to move beyond that to engage in a far broader, deeper and more meaningful relationship.”
Under Khan, Pakistan pushed hard for the world to engage with Afghanistan's new Taliban rulers, and Bhutto Zardari said his country continues to do so.
“Regardless of what we feel about the regime in Afghanistan,” the world can’t abandon the Afghan people and must immediately address the country’s humanitarian crisis and crumbling economy, he said. A total collapse of the Afghan economy would be a disaster for Afghans, Pakistan and the international community, he said, expressing concern that many Afghans would flee the country.
Pakistan is also insisting the Taliban live up to their international commitments that the country not be used for terrorism, that girls and women be able to pursue education, and that they form an inclusive government, he said.
The Taliban, however, have taken a more hard-line turn in recent weeks, imposing new restrictions on women. At the same time, tensions have grown between the Taliban and Pakistan over militants based in Afghanistan carrying out attacks in Pakistan.
Bhutto Zardari said the more the humanitarian crisis is alleviated and the economy is saved from collapse, “the more likely we are to succeed in our pursuit for women’s rights and the more likely we are to succeed in our efforts against terrorism.”
He said his focus in talks with Blinken was on increasing trade, particularly in agriculture, information technology and energy. He said he is looking forward to working with the U.S. on an initiative to empower women, including women entrepreneurs.
On economic, defense and military coordination, “if we continue to engage, then we can move forward in a more positive direction,” Bhutto Zardari said.
Asked about Khan’s anti-U.S. rhetoric, Bhutto Zardari dismissed the ex-premier's accusation of American collusion, calling it a “fanciful conspiracy theory based on a big lie” to explain his removal.
“I am particularly anti the politics of hate, division and polarization,” the foreign minister said. “If we consistently pursue the politics of `you’re with us or against us,’ whether that’s on an international level or a domestic level, I don’t believe it serves the interests of the people of Pakistan.”
He said he believes Pakistanis understand their country needs to engage with the U.S. and all countries, in order to become democratic and progress economically.
President Joe Biden has strengthened ties with Pakistan’s arch-rival India, but Bhutto Zardari 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 the leaders of Australia and Japan at a summit in Tokyo on May 24 of the so-called Quad, an Indo-Pacific alliance which China sees as an attempt to contain its economic growth and influence.
Pakistan has a very close economic and military relationship with neighboring China, where Bhutto Zardari is heading to on Saturday. He told the AP he didn’t think the growing relationship with the U.S. would hurt its ties to Beijing.
Pakistan has abstained on U.N. General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and withdrawal of its troops. Bhutto Zardari said Pakistan used to rely a lot on Ukrainian wheat and fertilizer and has been affected by rising food prices and calls for diplomacy to end the war.
The lives of the Bhutto Zardari family have in many ways reflected their country's turbulence. Bhutto Zardari took over his mother's Pakistan People's Party after she was killed in a suicide bombing in December 2007.
The daughter of Pakistan's first democratically elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who led Pakistan in the 1970s and was overthrown and executed by the military, Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan's first woman premier and twice served as head of government.
At the time of her assassination, she was rallying in a third bid for premiership. Bhutto Zardari’s life in politics was also shaped by his father, Asif Ali Zardari, who served as Pakistan’s president from 2008 to 2013.
In the interview with the AP, Bhutto Zardari recalled the legacy of his mother and grandfather. He called them “towering figures on the world stage,” and said he feels “the burden of history.”
“What motivates and drives me is the pursuit of their unfulfilled mission,” he said. “I hope that we live up to the expectations of the people of Pakistan” who have longed for true democracy and struggled for their economic, political and human rights.
“These are the ideals that we hold dear and we work towards every day,” Bhutto Zardari said.
Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.