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U.S. stands by as a partner to help as Khan's arrest adds to Pakistan's turmoil

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, the turmoil in Pakistan strikes one of the world's most populous countries, a nuclear-armed nation that is also a strategic partner of the United States. So we've been talking about it with diplomats at the U.S. State Department. Derek Chollet is the counselor to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He is a regular visitor to Pakistan. And as we spoke last week, former Prime Minister Imran Khan was not yet in custody, but Chollet knew of the court cases against him as the coalition government moves toward elections this fall.

What attitude, if any, is the United States taking toward that process?

DEREK CHOLLET: We obviously want to see the elections happen on time. We want them to be free and fair. We do not take a position on who will lead Pakistan. Of course, we want to ensure that we have a stable relationship. And our message to Pakistan during this period of tremendous turmoil and challenge that they're facing on so many different fronts is we want to be there as a partner.

INSKEEP: I want to follow up on something you said. There is talk in Pakistan of delaying these elections past the fall when, according to law, it appears they should take place.

CHOLLET: Right. Right.

INSKEEP: The United States is saying, you're telling me, hold the elections on time.

CHOLLET: We believe the elections should be held, and they need to be free and fair.

INSKEEP: Even if the result is Imran Khan returns to power.

CHOLLET: Again, we don't pass judgment on who's going to lead Pakistan. We'll look forward to working with whoever's in power there.

INSKEEP: Imran Khan, as you know very well, has espoused theories and ideas that the United States pushed him out of power and perhaps would have some influence in keeping him out of power or allowing him back in. What influence has the United States exercised, if any?

CHOLLET: The statements about any U.S. role in Pakistan's politics are completely false. They're preposterous. They're frankly a distraction from the important work that we have to do to help Pakistan economically and help it deal with its tremendous economic challenges, to help it on security, but then also to help us realize a tremendous potential we believe we have in this relationship. The United States remains Pakistan's largest trading partner. There are many Pakistani American who are vibrant parts of the United States but also do important work back in Pakistan. Many U.S. companies employ thousands and thousands of Pakistanis. We see that there is potential in the relationship, despite the tremendous challenges we have to work on together.

INSKEEP: Because of those trading relationships and because of the security relationship between the United States and Pakistan, isn't it true, though, that the U.S. does have a lot of influence there, even if you're not giving orders to anybody?

CHOLLET: Look, we certainly have some influence, and we try to use that influence as good partners to encourage the Pakistani government to make the right decisions and to give them support to make those decisions. But of course, we don't have infinite amount of influence and control events in Pakistan and don't seek to control events in Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Do you talk a lot about issues of democracy with the military, which has tremendous influence there?

CHOLLET: Absolutely we do. And in the several trips I've made to Pakistan in the last nine months, I've had an opportunity to see the chief of staff of the military. And we've talked about the importance of the military staying out of politics and the importance of the strength of democracy inside Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Is this a dangerous moment for that country?

CHOLLET: People that I've greatly respect who followed Pakistan for many years say that it is as perilous as they have seen it. Given the profound economic challenges they're facing, given the natural disasters that they have suffered from, given the rising threat of terrorism that seems to be returning and the ongoing political turmoil, this is a critical moment for Pakistan. It's why the United States is working very hard with our colleagues inside Pakistan, as well as other partners, to do what we can to help Pakistan get through this very challenging moment.

INSKEEP: Counselor, thanks so much.

CHOLLET: Thanks. Great being here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Derek Chollet, top adviser to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking late last week. A State Department spokesperson told NPR last evening the U.S. is aware of Imran Khan's arrest. The department is urging all protesters to express their grievances peacefully and for authorities to respond with restraint. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.