The Pulse

Testing Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ‘Independent’ Mind

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The Pulse

Testing Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ‘Independent’ Mind

Khan rode a reputation for independence into office, but can he break from the constraints that hamstrung his predecessors?

When Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan ordered the release and handing over of the captured pilot to India earlier this month, the step was hailed as a confident move to defuse tension after several days of hostilities between the two estranged neighbors.  

Earlier, Khan had ordered the opening of the Kartarpur border corridor to facilitate the visit of Sikh pilgrims from India to their sacred temple just across the border inside Pakistan, a move apparently meant to bridge the trust-deficit gap with India.   

Notwithstanding the applause in the Pakistani parliament as well as the international media, there also emerged questions both locally and internationally.

For example, why has Khan so far failed to order the release of several young Pashtun civil rights activists arrested on dubious charges of anti-state activities? Or Baloch rights activists? Why is Khan silent on his pre-election wish to visit Kabul, despite a quick invitation by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani soon after Khan’s swearing in as prime minister and why has Pakistan, under Khan, opted to sit in the Saudi-UAE camp after getting huge sums of money from the royals disregarding concerns from Iran? Was not Khan, as an opposition politician, the first to challenge Pakistan’s possible sending of troops to participate in the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen?

While the opening of Kartarpur and the handing over the Indian pilot are commendable steps by a civilian leader, one has to wonder at the movers and shakers behind the scenes.

Was not former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif labeled a “ghaddar” or traitor in a maligning media campaign following his peace overtures with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi only a year ago?  

This and many other such questions provide room for doubt whether decisions such as the opening of Kartarpur, the release of the pilot, or partnering with the Arab royals belong to the civilian authority?

Consider this: The hardest lessons Pakistani politicians learn after assuming power, some even at the head of genuine popular support, is to tread carefully lest they trespass the ostensible red lines separating two key domains – military and civilian.

Foreign policy, in this regard, has been one of the trickiest subjects where the de facto overshadows the de jure. Since the late 1970s, successive Pakistani civilian leaders have all but surrendered powers, albeit grudgingly, which are supposed to rest with the foreign office in Islamabad, to the powerful military establishment based in Rawalpindi.

Apart from a dwindling economy, Pakistan’s second biggest challenge comes in the foreign policy domain. The country has a history of tense relations with three of its four closest neighbors – India, Iran, and Afghanistan besides the country’s international image due to accusations of “harboring” and “sponsoring” militant proxies.

Khan’s victory in the May 2018 parliamentary elections and his taking charge as prime minister should be seen against this backdrop. Charismatic and independent-minded, as he is believed to be, Khan was seen as a man who could shift Pakistan’s foreign policy direction.

The opening of the Kartarpur corridor allowing visa free entry to Sikh pilgrims soon after his swearing in, and unconditional release of the Indian pilot, speaks volumes of Khan’s good intentions regarding peace with India. Equally promising are his words that “we will only progress when we free ourselves from the chains of the past.”

But shortly after Kartarpur, there came Pulwama.

Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) claimed responsibility for the February 14 suicide attack in Indian-administered Kashmir while Prime Minister Narendra Modi, struggling hard to win second term in office, was still weighing his options how to reciprocate to Khan’s gesture of goodwill by opening the border corridor.

JeM, led by Pakistan-based cleric Masood Azhar, claimed responsibility for the attack. Earlier, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, head of banned Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT), was accused of masterminding a terrorist attack in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008.

The million dollar question before Khan is whether and how to take action against jihadi groups whose leadership, such as Hafiz Saeed, are operating with freedom and even organizing rallies, running seminaries, and participating in elections in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s foreign policy with India, Afghanistan, and to some extent with the United States is closely interwoven with the country’s internal policy of dealing with the jihadi outfits and their leadership. One point of discord between civilian and military leadership in this regard is how to deal with jihadist groups. The matter remains a no-go area for civilian leadership, which often create problems on the international stage for Pakistan. Pakistan’s presence on the FATF grey list and the discord in its relations with the United States, India, Afghanistan and even Iran, to some extent, stems from this approach.

In fact, no civilian leadership, not even Nawaz Sharif, has managed to change Pakistan’s general approach. Can Imran Khan question that policy, particularly when his coalition government is enjoying only a marginal majority in the parliament?

Nawaz Sharif is an an example worth considering. Once seen as the favorite of the military establishment, Sharif was deposed, jailed, and exiled by General Pervez Musharraf in the aftermath of Kargil war with India in 1999. He returned as a changed man to Pakistan in 2007 to challenge the military’s overextended role in matters relating to civilians, including foreign policy. For several years, Sharif kept the foreign minister portfolio alongside running the prime minister office (from 2013 -2018), only to assert civilian control in that area.

However, he was hunted with slogans such as “Moody Ka Jo Yaar Hai, Ghaddar Hai Ghaddar Hai” (whoever befriends Modi, he is a traitor) after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unannounced visit to Sharif’s residence in Lahore in 2015. Sharif’s other perfidy was his call for an end to jihadist proxies.

The three-time elected prime minister is now languishing in jail for keeping “assets beyond known sources of income,” a charge that may push many others behind bars in Pakistan if applied the Sharif way.

It is generally believed that, being saddled by the military to counter the anti-establishment Pakistan People’s Party of late Benazir Bhutto and the Muslim League party of Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan has the backing of the country’s military establishment. His future will depend on Khan’s actions on several policy fronts, including India.  

Remember that Navjot Singh Sidhu, the former Indian cricketer, who was invited to Khan’s swearing in ceremony, was quoted as saying that it was his “jhappi” (hug) with Pakistan army chief that helped open the Kartharpur corridor.

Khan’s next foreign policy challenge is his country’s relations with Afghanistan, the next-door neighbor that accuses Pakistan of harboring the Taliban.

After years of tense relations with Afghanistan and the United States, Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table has recently been appreciated by the administration of U.S President Donald Trump. However, decisions in this realm are also believed to be in the hands of the military, which keeps a tight grip on Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy.

Pakistan’s relations with its third neighbor, Iran, nosedived following the February 13 attack on an Iranian elite force unit claimed by the al-Qaeda-linked Jaish al-Adl group. “Pakistan[‘s] government, who has housed these anti-revolutionaries and threat to Islam, knows where they are, and they are supported by Pakistan security forces,” Iran’s Revolutionary Guards commander was quoted as saying, the strongest such statement in recent years.

Iran’s anger is understandable partly because of the attack and partly because of Pakistan’s getting too close to the country’s ideological adversaries Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Keeping a balance in relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia has always been a tricky subject for Pakistan’s policymakers (for instance, Nawaz Sharif’s refusal to engage his country in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen cost him his friendship with the Arab royals).

Khan, who was a staunch proponent of balanced relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, tilted too much toward the latter by accepting $6 billion Saudi deposits and deferred oil facility to salvage the country’s dwindling economy. But here, too, the policy initiative was believed to be taken by the military leadership.

Well before Khan’s taking charge of the prime ministerial office, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had already paid half a dozen visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for reviving defense and strategic ties.

Imran Khan has yet to create the imprint of his “independent” mind on Pakistan’s foreign policy. Shifting control of the country’s foreign policy from Rawalpindi to Islamabad will add another feather to Khan’s cap after his landmark victory of the 1992 cricket world championship for Pakistan.

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.