Pakistan's Imran Khan talks US relations as elections loom

FILE - In this July 28, 2017 file photo, Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan gestures during a news conference in Islamabad, Pakistan. Khan said Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018 that meeting U.S. President Donald Trump would be a "bitter pill" to swallow should he become Pakistan's prime minister in elections later this year, but added "I would meet him." (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed, File)

ISLAMABAD — Famed cricketer turned politician Imran Khan said Saturday that meeting U.S. President Donald Trump would be a "bitter pill" to swallow should he become Pakistan's prime minister in elections later this year, but added "I would meet him."

In a press briefing, Khan, who has an international reputation as a ladies man and at home is seen more as a religious conservative, said he has been a staunch opponent of Pakistan's participation in the war on terror since it began in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.

"Pakistan had nothing to do with it," he said, adding that he supported co-operation with the United States but not co-opting Pakistan's military into a ground battle with its own people in the tribal regions that border Afghanistan and where Afghan insurgents hide.

Pakistanis are still outraged two weeks after Trump's New Year's Day tweet accusing Islamabad of "deceit and lies," and of taking $33 billion in aid over 15 years while harboring Afghan insurgents, who are attacking American soldiers in neighboring Afghanistan.

Khan said that Trump scapegoated Pakistan for the U.S.-led coalition's failure to defeat the Taliban and bring peace to Afghanistan, and that "it was very insulting of him."

Should he become Pakistan's prime minister, Khan said "yes we would talk," referring to Trump, but added that the U.S. dishonors the memory of thousands of Pakistan's soldiers who died battling insurgents in its tribal regions, as well as that of tens of thousands of Pakistanis who died in terrorist attacks.

"The way the United States has treated Pakistan as a doormat is not fair," he said.

Pakistan's politics have been in turmoil since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was dismissed from power last year on corruption charges and a party faithful, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, was sworn in as prime minister until new elections are held. Khan referred to Sharif's family, which dominates the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML), as "a political mafia" that he vowed to defeat at the polls.

It's still not clear what kind of government Khan envisions for Pakistan. While he praises liberals outside Pakistan as anti-war and committed to humanitarian values and freedom of speech, he rails against Pakistani liberals, chastising them for supporting the military operations in the tribal regions.

Khan also raised eyebrows when he announced an electoral alliance with Maulana Sami-ul Haq, a firebrand Islamic cleric, whose hard-line Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary taught several of Afghanistan's senior Taliban leaders. Haq remains a close ally of Afghanistan's Taliban.

Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party rules Pakistan's Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KPK) province, which borders Afghanistan, as part of a coalition government that includes the religious Jamaat-e-Islami party. Khan's provincial government has also given millions of Pakistani rupees to Haq, whose Haqqania seminary is located in KPK.

At the press briefing, Khan said he was committed to "mainstreaming" Pakistan's tens of thousands of madrassas, or religious seminaries, which provide the only education for more than 2 million children, many of them among the poorest. The seminaries are often charged with promoting sectarianism.

He said he wants madrassa school graduates to have skills that will allow them to find jobs across all sectors. As it stands, madrassa graduates are ill-equipped to work as anything other than clerics or prayer leaders.

"We will train their teachers to bring them into the mainstream," he said, without providing details on how that would be accomplished.

Khan has called for early elections, which should be held by July in keeping with the Constitution.

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