Imran Khan Can’t Fix Pakistan’s Foreign Policy

The fiery electoral front-runner will be hemmed in on all sides if he wins.

Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan (C) gestures from the stage during a by-election campaign event in Karachi on April 9, 2015. (RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan (C) gestures from the stage during a by-election campaign event in Karachi on April 9, 2015. (RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images)

In Pakistan’s contentious election campaign, front-runner Imran Khan, like the other challengers, has spoken more about corruption than international relations. And when he has talked about the rest of the world, it has been in an adversarial tone, mostly to blame the “international establishment” for a conspiracy against him and Pakistani democracy. But if the polls bring Khan to power on July 25, managing Pakistan’s broken foreign relations will be one of his major challenges.

Pakistan is voting at a time when its foreign relations are the most frayed they have been in decades, with the United States and Afghanistan accusing it of allowing Taliban militants to operate out of sanctuaries in Pakistan and a standoff with archrival India over the disputed region of Kashmir growing more tense. Pakistan’s leaders have looked to balance out U.S. irritation and Indian hostility by building stronger ties with China, but these have come at a cost: A looming debt crisis fueled in part by a surge in Chinese loans is threatening to put the brakes on Pakistan’s nearly $300 billion economy—growing at its fastest pace in 13 years—and send it knocking on the doors of the International Monetary Fund yet again. And to make things even worse, Pakistan has once more been placed on a terrorism-financing watchlist by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, rendering it ever more internationally isolated.

These tough foreign-policy challenges are probably about to fall into the lap of the cricket hero-turned-politician Imran Khan—and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf—who most opinion polls say is a bat’s swing away from the prime minister’s office. But Khan’s victory is likely to be a marginal one as the largest party in a hung parliament, leaving him fatally dependent on the army in foreign-policy matters. Real power in deciding Pakistan’s relationships will stay in the hands of the generals, not the new prime minister.

For over a decade now, Khan, a popular nationalist and perennial prime ministerial candidate, has stirred up his base by invoking the specter of Pakistan’s endangered sovereignty. Since 2008, he has opposed the United States’ controversial drone campaign in Pakistani regions bordering Afghanistan, travelling far and wide to meet civilians disabled or displaced by the strikes and leading marches against the aerial killings. Khan constantly challenges Pakistani leaders for allowing the country to be used as a “hired gun” by the United States to fight its wars and is one of the most virulent opponents of the U.S. “war on terror,” repeatedly holding the former Pakistani president and army chief Pervez Musharraf responsible for pushing the country into what he calls a “moronic” battle.

Most recently, when the Trump administration announced it was suspending security aid to Pakistan until the country took action against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, Khan called to “immediately remove excessive U.S. diplomatic, nondiplomatic, and intelligence personnel from Pakistan” and demanded that ground and air routes for U.S. military supplies to troops in Afghanistan be shut down. He said U.S. President Donald Trump was scapegoating Pakistan for the U.S.-led coalition’s failure to defeat the Taliban and bring peace to Afghanistan, and dishonoring the memory of thousands of Pakistani soldiers who had died battling insurgents in its tribal regions and of the more than 60,000 Pakistanis killed in terrorist attacks.

Khan’s consistent anti-Americanism, despite his past as an Oxford-educated, globe-trotting lady’s man, indicates how much populism is a political constant in Pakistan. In 2013, 64 percent Pakistanis described the United States as an enemy in a Pew Research Center survey, and Khan has worked hard to capitalize on this widespread sentiment on the ground. This has also helped him to portray the sitting government as entrapping his homeland in a dark cycle of immiseration in return for dollars, while setting himself up as a leader of conscience who would better safeguard Pakistani honor by engaging with the United States on more equal terms.

But once Khan is finally and safely in power after prowling the margins of Pakistani politics for almost two decades, he may no longer need to surf Pakistan’s permanent wave of popular anti-American sentiment with such dedication. Once the work of statecraft begins, the rhetoric will self-calibrate. Indeed, power has a moderating influence on most leaders, likely including Khan—not least because the Pakistani military, the main beneficiary of security aid and the real decision-maker when it comes to all things foreign policy, is keen to salvage its relationship with the United States. Despite Khan’s famous stubbornness, he’s been quite willing to ditch former loyalists such as Ali Muhammad Khan and Shaukat Yousafzai in favor of more electable candidates such as Sardar Ghulam Abbas and Khusro Bakhtiar to boost his party’s chances. However sincere his positions may be, it is clear that he is capable of intelligent, even cynical, calculations about power.

In Pakistan, that means, above all, not challenging the army’s hegemony by undermining a relationship that is already fragile. “Right now, ties [with the United States] are getting better thanks to increased cooperation over the Afghanistan question, so there is less reason to expect Imran Khan will want to rock the boat,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani specialist who served as an advisor at the Foreign Ministry from 2011 to 2013 and has written extensively about Khan’s politics.

Zaidi was referring to the killing of Pakistan’s most wanted terrorist, Mullah Fazlullah, in a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan this June, as well as a recent flurry of high-level visits by U.S. emissaries to Pakistan, of Pakistani officials to Kabul, and vice versa—all meant to build trust between the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan at a crucial moment in peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban.

Two retired generals who advise Khan on foreign-policy matters both said he fully understood Pakistan’s profound influence over Afghan peace talks. “Imran would not risk a confrontation at this juncture. It would be a nightmare scenario, and he knows it,” one of the generals said.

“No one wants better relations with Afghanistan more than Imran Khan,” Fawad Chaudhry, his party’s spokesman, said, adding that Khan’s party has ruled Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan, for the last four years. “So, when it comes to Afghanistan, Imran as prime minister will be a blessing for the world. The stakes are the highest for him, and he is the one with the team, the knowledge, and the experience suited to handle the Afghan challenge.”

But, Chaudhry added, while Khan believes in Afghan sovereignty, he would never compromise on India using Pakistan. That echoes the language of Pakistan’s generals, who have long feared a Kabul-New Delhi axis that would lead to “strategic encirclement.”

“If having this position means we are on the army’s side, then yes we are. Imran will never let India use Afghanistan for evil designs against Pakistan,” Chaudhry said.

At his last election rally, on Monday night, Khan openly railed against India, blaming it for launching a supposed conspiracy led by previous Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif against Pakistan and its electoral exercise.

India must have its own reservations about Khan and Pakistan’s July 25 election. Most disturbing, from New Delhi’s perspective, is the bumper crop of ultra-Islamist groups contesting the polls and the fact that the Pakistani Islamist Hafiz Saeed, accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed more than 160 people, is hitting the campaign trail hard in support of more than 200 candidates. Given the odds that July 25 produces a hung parliament with no clear majority, the demands of coalition politics will mean larger parties like Khan’s will need the support of these radical candidates to form a government, giving extremists the power to reshape the political landscape.

This slate of militant-linked candidates is yet another result of the army’s interference in policymaking. The military has long been accused of fostering militant groups as proxy fighters opposing neighboring archenemy India and Afghanistan, and there are reports that it is behind the mainstreaming of these groups as an alternative to dismantling militant proxies altogether and a balance against politicians who are inclined to normalize relations with India. The army denies these allegations.

Sherry Rehman, the leader of the opposition in Pakistan’s upper house of parliament, said the army had space to intervene in foreign policy because Sharif had ignored and sidelined the Foreign Ministry.

“Sharif complained that the army is making defense and foreign policy but then he never even appointed a foreign minister,” Rehman said. “Civilian leaders can’t generate consensus on anything, whether it be India or Afghanistan, unless they develop a robust foreign affairs machinery that can bring all stakeholders to the table. Unless that happens, there will be constant fighting about who is in charge.”

But Khan’s spokesman Chaudhry said he saw nothing wrong with the Pakistan army “advising” the government on foreign-policy issues.

“If a leader is genuinely popular, honest, and capable, like Imran Khan is, then he will be able to make his own decisions,” Chaudhry said. “Past prime ministers have been vetoed by the military on foreign policy because they were seen as corrupt and incapable of delivering results. If you are clean and you have the people behind you, who can stop you?”

Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a former Reuters correspondent, is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad. Twitter: @mehreenzahra

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