If judged by his inaugural speech on the eve of August 19, Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan is set to focus inward to fulfill his election promises, although the country’s international isolation and foreign policy challenges are a cause of concern for many.
Pakistan’s foreign policy is often visualized through the prism of the country’s off-again-on-again relations with its western neighbor Afghanistan, the love-hate relationship with the United States, and the unending rivalry and perpetual tension on the Line of Control (LoC) with its much bigger neighbor India. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of Middle East – while important – are not the point of discussion here.
From his conciliatory statements just after his election victory and the presence of former Indian cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu during Imran Khan’s oath-taking ceremony on August 18, it was generally believed that the new prime minister, who is known for his independent mind, will be drawing clear lines on foreign policy regarding Afghanistan, India, and the United States.
However, to the dismay of many analysts and experts, Khans’ 70-minute televised address conveyed a different message: Either he needs more time to understand and set his foreign policy preferences or does not want to discuss the subject publicly.
There is a widespread perception in Pakistan and abroad that the country’s foreign policy has remained subservient to its powerful military establishment and one of the major reasons for ex-premier Nawaz Sharif’s fall from grace was his crossing the red line on Afghanistan, India, and the United States.
Imran Khan is assuming charge of the government at a time when Pakistan confronts a few major challenges on the foreign policy front. The country’s relationship with the United States is at the lowest ebb while western neighbor India has doubled efforts to further isolate Pakistan on the international level.
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global financial watchdog, has placed Pakistan on the grey list at a time when the country needs an immediate bailout package of $12 billion. And the United States has frozen aid to Pakistan for the country’s alleged failure to take serious steps in fighting terrorism and extremism.
And on top of all that, Pakistan’s relations with neighboring Afghanistan are once again returning to the usual blame-game phase following the Taliban’s unsuccessful attempt to besiege Ghazni City, capital of Ghazni province, located 120 kilometers south of Kabul.
Visiting the city of Ghazni days after the Taliban attack was repulsed by the Afghan security forces, President Ashraf Ghani alleged that the attackers came from Pakistan and many of those injured in fighting are now being treated in hospitals across the border. Pakistan refuted the charges by saying that many Afghans visit Pakistani hospitals for treatment on daily basis.
Insecurity in Afghanistan has been one of the major reasons for the ups and downs in relations between Pakistan and the United States. After spending billions of dollars and sacrificing the lives of more than 2,300 American men and women over the past 17 years, the United States wants an end to its Afghan campaign.
Since an outright victory against the Taliban is now almost out of the question, the need for a negotiated settlement is felt more than ever before. And Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table is considered pivotal both by the United States and Afghanistan.
Just like inviting Navjot Singh Sidhu to pass on a message of peace across the border to India, Imran Khan has a chance now to assure his country’s sincere support for bringing lasting peace in Afghanistan.
Provided that his country’s powerful security establishment gives a green signal, all the odds, at least apparently, are in Khan’s favor: Just ahead of his oath-taking ceremony, Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada released a 10-page English language statement asking for direct talks with the United States. One round of such talks had reportedly been held in July in the Qatari capital of Doha.
Unlike former President Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghani is not averse to direct talks between Taliban and the United States. Known for his bold decisions and straightforward approach, Ghani may also agree to discuss border issues with Pakistan, in addition to discussing the terrorist attacks and infiltrations on both sides of the divide.
Ghani had already discussed the border issue and other relevant matters with then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his November 2014 visit to Islamabad soon after taking office in Kabul.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s upcoming visit to Islamabad in early September is going to be another handy opportunity for Khan to think about a reset in his country’s relations with the United States and Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding President Donald Trump’s strong criticism of Pakistan’s “double game” regarding fighting terrorism and extremism, the United States is still interested in keeping Pakistan on its right side amid changes in global and regional politics.
One major difference between Imran Khan as prime minister and his predecessor is Khan’s independence and his strong will power. Several of the political leaders who are now part of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) subjected him to mockery when his party failed to win a seat in the parliament in 1997 polls. In 2002, after much efforts, Khan succeeded in winning his seat, thus becoming the only elected representative of his party in the National Assembly or lower house of parliament. His party boycotted the 2008 elections only to stage a vigorous comeback by winning third position in parliament in the May 2013 election.
As a sportsman, Khan managed to grab victory for Pakistan in the 1992 cricket world championship. He is also renowned for his social work; Khan’s Shaukat Khanum cancer hospital, which he managed to establish with donations from Pakistanis inside the country and abroad, is the first of its type in Pakistan.
With a track record of accomplishments through luck, strong will power, an independent mind, and straightforward approach, there seems to be no reason that Imran Khan cannot prove his mettle in the foreign policy domain by finding a way toward peace and stability in the region.
For that, Khan’s only limitation will be his independence and decision-making power. “If the incoming PM can persuade the military to enable him to improve relations with the United States, Afghanistan and India, he will pull off a feat none of his predecessors can manage,” wrote analyst Mosharraf Zaidi in a recent New York Times article.
While Khan did not explain his government foreign policy in his inaugural address to the nation, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s news conference soon after taking charge of office in Islamabad on August 20 came as a ray of hope.
Besides passing on a message of peace to the governments and people of Afghanistan and India, Qureshi also tried to dispel the general impression that the security establishment is the real in charge of Pakistan’s foreign policy. “There are pre-conceived notions about where the foreign policy of Pakistan was formulated. Let me be clear: the foreign policy will be made here ─ at the Foreign Office of Pakistan,” he asserted.
There is no reason why one should not believe Qureshi’s words. But past experiences, from the first government of the late Benazir Bhutto in post-Zia-ul-Haq Pakistan, through the previous government of Nawaz Sharif, suggest caution. No other prime minister had asserted civilian control over key decision making on the foreign policy front.
Only time will prove Imran Khan’s sphere of influence, strength, and independence.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.