Pakistan’s July 25 elections exemplified a new, energetic chapter in the country’s politics as voters chose longtime outsider politician Imran Khan as prime minister. In its position as an opposition party, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI) faced consistent disparagement from the incumbent parties Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Both the PML-N and PPP have criticized the PTI (especially Khan himself) of being inexperienced with regards to political decision-making, governance, economic development and particularly in the realm of international politics.
Politics is no picnic in Pakistan. For months ahead of the elections, the PML-N and PPP could not run from their loss of public confidence fueled by corruption allegations, such as the charges that ousted former three-term prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Instead, they targeted Khan’s personal life and his recent marriage to a spiritual adviser and even promoted his former wife Reham Khan’s accusations of sexual and other misdeeds to call into question Khan’s character and morality.
The First 100 Days
Khan’s Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan) platform has promised a transparent government that will fight corruption and will be responsible for the protection and progress of the nation. Khan highlighted his own impressive contributions in establishing hospitals, new schools, and colleges during his party’s five-year rule in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and his anti-corruption drive targeting the police, parliamentary officials, and the incumbent PML-N.
But winning the election is just the first step; for Khan, governing will be the real challenge. Indeed, the new prime minister faces the immense challenges of Pakistan’s insecure position in regional and international geopolitics, a looming economic crisis, mangled and neglected infrastructure, a never-ending energy crisis, lack of opportunities for the youth, and a business climate that holds little allure for international investors.
A Naya Pakistan will require a visionary manifesto that addresses all of Pakistan’s social, political and economic challenges and concrete changes. And for those changes to happen, the army — a constant factor in Pakistan’s domestic politics — will have to cooperate. Khan’s strategic diplomacy will be tested when he needs to work closely with Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa (and the other generals) while working toward his populist vision of anti-corruption and accountability. Whether it be trade, regional stability, or handling foreign policy issues among allies, Khan will need the military’s approval to move forward.
U.S.-Pakistani Bilateral Ties
On the foreign policy front, Khan has an arduous struggle ahead in creating a productive relationship with the United States; the White House’s opinion of him rests on sensationalist journalism alleging that he has sympathies for the Haqqani terrorist network and labeling him “Taliban Khan.”
The last two decades of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has centered on a “transactional security” policy. Unfortunately, Washington views Pakistan solely as a tool to stabilize and secure Afghanistan, to counter terrorist groups in the region, and to mitigate Iran’s growing influence and China’s expansionary aspirations. Washington also seeks to minimize or eliminate the Pakistani ultra-conservative wing’s ambitions to threaten India’s economic progress. Khan has an opportunity to deal with these issues by resituating Pakistan’s long-term goals regionally and internationally.
The U.S. will also have to change its calculations regarding stability in Afghanistan in light of Khan’s ideas on counterterrorism. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Khan have already spoken on the phone to discuss bilateral issues and to “bury the past.” However, Khan has been an outspoken critic of the U.S. drone policy in Pakistan because he believed there were more civilian fatalities than deaths of suspected terrorists. Indirectly, and diplomatically, Khan was challenging the Pakistani army and intelligence sectors who were promulgating Islamabad’s position on Washington’s drone policy.
While strongly criticizing U.S./Afghan counterterrorism strategies, Khan insists that building up infrastructure, having a strong rule of law, providing access to education, alleviating poverty, and ensuring that civil society is an active partner in the government’s efforts can prevent extremist ideologies from taking root. The military kinetic approach to counterterrorism, he reasons, expends an incredible amount of human resources while providing few, if any, results.
Khan’s vision of a national countering violent extremism policy that inoculates Pakistan from extremism will mean a shift in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. Rather than security-based transactional efforts, the countries can form a broader, substantial relationship in areas like strategic trade, political economy, and scientific research and development.
The U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS), released in January 2018, emphasized that the “Great Power Competition” — namely with Russia and China — is using an authoritative model to assert revisionist ideas of power throughout the world. Secretary of Defense James Mattis claimed that the Russia-China “inter-state strategic competition is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” Pakistan cannot change the Pentagon’s security priorities, but Islamabad can reconfigure its function and role in the “Great Power Competition” strategy.
Thus, Khan’s Naya Pakistan cannot be limited to domestic activities. Instead, starting a new chapter will require Khan to design a forward-thinking policy that reconfigures U.S.-Pakistan ties beyond a transactional relationship for short-term gains.
The U.S. suspension of aid to Pakistan earlier this year, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s criticism of Pakistan’s use of IMF funds to bail out on a $18 billion debt, will not advance U.S. interests in regional stability. Instead of arm-twisting tactics, Washington will benefit from persuading Islamabad to further align its security policy for Afghanistan with the United States’ and to open a progressive diplomatic relationship with India.
Dr. Qamar-ul Huda is Vice President of Development and Strategy at the Center for Global Policy (CGP). Prior to joining CGP, Dr. Huda was a Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.