He may have landed his dream role but a tough road lies ahead for Pakistan’s new PM, especially, warns Rashed Rahman, in matters of international relations
Imran Khan has finally reached the peak of his longstanding ambition to lead Pakistan. But he may soon find that being the prime minister of a troubled country like Pakistan is no bed of roses. Amidst all the other challenges that clamour for his attention, foreign policy perhaps carries the highest risk in terms of slip-ups and worse.
Three major challenges on the foreign policy front can be picked out as critical. First and foremost, the fast deteriorating relationship with the US; second (and tied with the first), the ongoing Afghan war; and three, relations with India.
The chickens of Pakistan’s duality of policy vis-à-vis the Afghan conflict since 9/11 have finally come home to roost. General Musharraf’s policy of cracking down on al-Qaeda (even handing over arrested members to the US) while offering safe havens to the Afghan Taliban to carry on their struggle from Pakistani soil is still, with minor variations, in operation. The Afghan Taliban Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network have gone ‘underground’ in Pakistan to make the task of convincing Washington (and the world) that Pakistan’s protestations (and diplomatic posture) that the militants are no longer inside Pakistan and it wants peace in Afghanistan through a negotiated political settlement that much more credible.
Unfortunately, the world is not buying this story. Pakistan therefore remains relatively isolated in the world on this issue since its version of the ground situation is not being accepted. Most informed observers point to the distinction Pakistan makes between ‘good’ Taliban (Afghan, fighting the Kabul government and its backer the US) and ‘bad’ Taliban (Pakistani, fighting Islamabad). The latter have been largely expelled from the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by military operations and pushed across the border into Afghanistan. Pakistan tries to present the ‘export’ of the PakistaniTaliban as also the expulsion of the Afghan Taliban from its soil.
Frictions arising from this impasse between Washington and Islamabad, including the former turning offthe financial taps crucial to Pakistan’s economy, both bilateral and multilateral, have persuaded the powers-that-be in Pakistan to turn to China, Saudi Arabia and Russia in varying degrees to offset the US’s anger and ‘stinginess’. However, these ‘friends’ may not be able to completely meet Pakistan’s dire need of resources to service its burgeoning foreign debt, standing at Rs 28 trillion in 2018. Pakistan’s economy is caught in a classic debt trap that requires fresh borrowing even to pay interest on its loans. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its concomitant projects have led to a boost in imports and an unprecedented trade deficit of $18 billion in the financial year 2018.
The external account deficit and foreign debt servicing have surfaced as the two most crucial challenges for Imran Khan’s government in the economic sphere. Without an effort to mollify Washington by at least nudging the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, Pakistan will find it hard going to drum up the resources it needs from international financial institutions such as the IMF. The US has already shot down any notion of IMF funding for Pakistan being used to retire Chinese loans associated with CPEC. The US has a powerful presence and influence, if not veto, on the IMF board.
The US may also view Imran Khan himself with healthy scepticism. Since 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror launched by former US President George W. Bush, Imran Khan is on record as making virulently anti-US speeches, condemning US drone strikes inside Pakistan, and is known to harbour a soft corner for the Taliban. The only saving grace for him may be the fact that the US has finally veered round to direct talks with the Afghan Taliban in Doha (and perhaps clandestinely elsewhere) to try and bring an end to the longest running foreign war in the US’s history. Since Imran Khan has for long advocated just such talks with the Taliban, could this circumstantial convergence ease US suspicions about his leanings?
In his inaugural speech, Prime Minister Khan reached out to all neighbouring countries, including India, and was rewarded by a message on August 20 from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about holding talks. It should be recalled that India has been holding back from thestalled dialogue with Pakistan unless and until Pakistan ceases its alleged infiltration of fighters into Indian Held Kashmir. Khan nevertheless has to keep in mind the fate of his civilian elected predecessors when and if they crossed the red lines on policy towards India.
Civilian elected governments in the past fell foul of the military’s policy on the Afghan proxy war and normalisation of relations with India and had to pay the price, which ranged from weakening (in the case of the PPP-led 2008-13 government) to worse (Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification and imprisonment). Slippery as this slope inherently has proved, the only chance Imran Khan has to complete his five-year tenure is if he keeps the military on board regarding policy changes vis-à-vis Afghanistan or India, and refrains from waving what may turn out to be red rags to the bull.
Apart from these central challenges, Imran Khan would like to play a mediatory role in the region, particularly in the ongoing confrontation and proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Syriaand Yemen. This pious wish may not be easy. These regional rivals are at daggers drawn. Pakistan’s neutrality could be called into question on the fact that its former Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif is commander of the (essentially anti-Iran) multinational military alliance forged by Saudi Arabia.
In today’s multi-polar world, with the rise of China and recovery from the disaster of the collapse of the Soviet Union by Russia, the US struggles to retain its pre-eminent status. While this provides other options for Pakistan up to a point, the Colossus with feet of clay that the US has been reduced to nevertheless is not a country Pakistan can ignore or have tense relations with.
With these immense challenges to confront on the foreign policy front, apart from domestic issues that would make strong men weep, Imran Khan has his task cut out for him. On his handling of these issues will depend Pakistan’s possible emergence from relative isolation and being able to tap the full panoply of sources for its urgent resource requirements.