September issue 2018

By | Newsbeat National | Published 6 years ago

In his victory speech the day after the July 25 elections, in which the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won by a convincing margin, Imran Khan underlined a willingness to take up a progressive brand of diplomacy. This was punctuated by an exhibit of the proverbial open arms towards India, with Khan saying that “if India took one step forward, we would take two.”

Consequently, it was surprising that a detailed sketch of the diplomatic strategy was missing from his inaugural address as the Prime Minister of Pakistan on August 19, triggering fears of pressure being exerted by the military leadership, which has historically enjoyed hegemony over diplomacy and veto power over the India policy.

As Khan takes over the reins of government, Pakistan faces a wide range of diplomatic challenges in which India features heavily. These challenges, in turn, are linked to the state’s security and economic policies, over which the PTI-led government is making significant noises.

But while PTI’s economic vision is a continuation of its pre-election narrative, it is on the diplomatic front that Khan has made a U-turn.

“One must differentiate what is said during election campaigns from what happens when a political party or leader comes into power,” says Husain Haqqani, former ambassador to the US and author of India vs Pakistan: Why Can’t We Just Be Friends? “Every Pakistani civilian prime minister, irrespective of what he or she said during an election campaign, has understood the need to improve relations with India.” 

Haqqani adds: “If Pakistan wants to prosper economically and grow, then the only way is to improve relations with one of the fastest growing economies in the world, India. For Pakistan to stabilise politically and rid itself of the menace of terrorism, again what it needs is better relations with India and changes in the policy of sponsoring jihad.”

The view in India with regards to Imran Khan’s win has been particularly pessimistic with the media underscoring him as the ‘Army’s man.’ Khan addressed this in his victory speech as well, calling out the Indian media for portraying him as a ‘Bollywood villain.’

“From Benazir Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif to Gen. Pervez Musharraf to Imran Khan, all political leaders or quasi-politicians in Pakistan have employed the rhetoric of peace and dialogue with India only to be followed by something sinister,” says Aarti Tikoo Singh, Senior Assistant Editor at The Times of India.  

“While Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was talking peace with Benazir Bhutto, she and the Pakistani Army were sending hordes of terrorists to Kashmir. Similarly, while Atal Bihari Vajpayee signed the Lahore declaration with Nawaz Sharif, Gen. Musharraf was quietly launching a war against India in Kargil. “So Imran Khan’s post-election change of heart is nothing but good optics to impress the West. Only a naive leadership in the world would trust Imran Khan’s rhetoric.”

A major reason why scepticism prevails with regards to Imran Khan playing a role in improving relations with India is a combination of the army’s influence in helping him become the premier, and the military leadership’s security policy. 

It is this security policy that Nawaz Sharif had vowed to challenge in what eventually became the Dawn Leaks scandal. And considering that the army leadership propped up groups affiliated with Hafiz Saeed – the man that the civilian leadership has had to account for around the world – it became evident that the military does not plan to switch any gears on that front.

This further handicaps Khan’s diplomatic ambitions, should they exist, as he portrayed in his victory speech. For it isn’t New Delhi alone that points fingers at Islamabad for providing safe havens to militants; similar allegations have been levelled by each country that borders Pakistan.

Afghanistan maintains that a majority of the attacks on its territory originate in Pakistan – an allegation that Islamabad reciprocates – while Iran and China have maintained that jihadism has spilled over from Pakistani soil into theirs. 

Last year Tehran said it was ready to strike militant ‘safe havens’ in Pakistan when 10 Iranian border guards were killed by groups based in Pakistan. China says jihadists based in Pakistan enter Xinjiang to participate in the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.


Professor Shameem Akhtar, a former Dean at the International Relations Department at Karachi University, says Khan is saying the right things to address allegations of cross-border militancy. “He wants open borders with Afghanistan, to promote people-to-people contact. This undercuts misunderstandings and has a positive influence on the psychology of the states. For if there’s no tension between the masses, why should states be hostile towards each other?” he says. 

“Also, since the US is ready to talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan, it would need Pakistan. And a Pakistan under Imran Khan would be best placed to negotiate with the Taliban.”

Professor Shameem Akhtar says Imran Khan might even be able to finally fulfil Pakistan’s long-held ambition of mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“We have traditionally been the agents of Saudi Arabia, especially under Nawaz Sharif, who was indebted to the al-Saud family. Imran Khan is in a more neutral position and he might be able to fulfil Pakistan’s desire of being the reconciliatory force between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he says.

While Islamabad’s diplomacy is intrinsically linked to its security, Pakistan’s economic woes have also created foreign policy challenges. The most prominent among these has put Islamabad in the middle of an  economic warfare spearheaded by the US and China in the region, with Pakistan’s need for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) providing the latest battleground.

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has asked the IMF not to bail out Islamabad. “Make no mistake. We will be watching what the IMF does. There’s no rationale for IMF tax dollars, and associated with that, American dollars that are part of the IMF funding, to go to bail out Chinese bondholders or China itself,” he said.

With the IMF set to ask Islamabad to ensure transparency of transactions pertaining to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a precondition for the expected bailout, Pakistan finds itself in a tough spot. “Pakistan is in the middle of the fight between China and the US, and considering our economic vulnerabilities it will naturally face tough diplomatic choices,” says economic theorist and political analyst Farrukh Saleem. “Unfortunately, given the fact that we’re carrying a begging bowl, it makes it harder for us to take decisive action, and it is more likely that things would be imposed on us.”

While the battle between Beijing and Washington poses an external challenge for PM Imran Khan, domestically he faces the risk of  alienating his heretofore backers in the military leadership, if he were to attempt to uphold civilian supremacy.

“Offering talks, shaking hands and meeting their Indian counterparts is the easy part. The challenge every Pakistani civilian prime minister faces arises when he or she tries to actually change policy,” says Husain Haqqani. 

“Will Imran Khan dare to confront the military and intelligence services that helped him win? Or is the military leadership looking to normalise ties with India and will encourage Imran Khan to take steps they prevented his predecessors from taking? The answers to these questions will determine the path ahead.”