Touqir Hussain on Pakistan Foreign Policy Under Imran Khan

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Touqir Hussain on Pakistan Foreign Policy Under Imran Khan

The Diplomat talks with Touqir Hussain on Imran Khan and his handling of Pakistan’s foreign policy thus far.

Touqir Hussain on Pakistan Foreign Policy Under Imran Khan
Credit: Flickr/Georgetown Asian Studies

Since coming to office last year, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has had a full plate of issues to contend with in foreign policy, be it managing the international aspects of his country’s manifold domestic challenges, coping with changes in key individual relationships, and managing Pakistan’s international reputation which has come under greater scrutiny in recent years. This is occurring amid a series of other wider developments, including continued India-Pakistan tensions and growing U.S.-China competition.

For a perspective on Khan’s handling of Pakistan’s foreign policy challenges thus far, The Diplomat’s Senior Editor Prashanth Parameswaran spoke to Touqir Hussain, a former ambassador and diplomatic adviser to the prime minister who is currently adjunct faculty at Georgetown University and Syracuse University.

Before we get to some individual key relationships, what is your sense about how Pakistan’s foreign policy under Imran Khan has been evolving so far in general just over a year since his election as prime minister last year?

Before Imran Khan could even begin, Pakistan had come to face one of its worst economic crises. He realized that as long as Pakistan was absorbed with the Afghanistan crisis, the United States kept putting pressure on Pakistan, and the India-Pakistan relations remained antagonistic, the economic situation would remain weak sabotaging his vision of a Naya (New) Pakistan. So, he began mending fences with Afghanistan and the United States. He also extended a hand of friendship to India.

India ignored Imran Khan’s overtures, but there has been a visible progress on other fronts. He had a successful visit to Washington. The relations have not been reset as he had hoped but at least the decks have been cleared for a possible reset. The Arab countries in the Gulf responded positively for his request for economic help. The relations with China continue to progress. He showed an extraordinary leadership in handling two of the worst foreign policy challenges – Pulwama and the Kashmir situation. He has proven himself to be ‘made for crisis’ leading from the front as he did in cricket. He has shunned rhetoric and focused largely on diplomacy thus avoiding the risk of war. He has overall rehabilitated Pakistan’s international standing.

More generally, looking at Khan’s tenure thus far, what is your sense of the domestic political setting in Pakistan, including civil-military dynamics and the country’s broader economic, political, and societal challenges? 

Pakistan is enjoying political stability, and the internal security has vastly improved. There is no threat to the government from the military as each has found shared interests in other’s objectives. Imran Khan campaigned on the anti-corruption platform accusing for years the leadership of PML (N) and PPP of “robbing the wealth of the nation.” The military had its own reasons for opposing this leadership, corruption and mismanagement being one of them. You cannot maintain a strong defense establishment on a weak economy.

The military has found Imran Khan appealing. His anti-corruption campaign would clean up the traditional political leadership and warn the future leadership, his sincerity and commitment to change might help improve Pakistan’s governance and economy, and his nationalism would align him with the military’s foreign policy priorities. And with a popular political face especially among the youth, the military may gain a cover for some of its priorities needing public support.

In the time ahead, the government will have to meet tough IMF conditionalities creating economic difficulties for the people and political challenges for the government. Also challenging will be the continuing presence of jihadists and issues of governance. This will test collaboration between Imran Khan and Pakistan’s military.

Getting to individual key relationships, one item that has been dominating the headlines of late is India’s move on Kashmir. In your view, how has the Imran Khan government handled this issue thus far, and how does this affect the broader trajectory of ties between India and Pakistan more generally given the exchanges we have seen thus far, including on no-first use?

By revoking article 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, Modi has taken away Pakistan’s special status. Kashmir’s special status and the UN resolutions had offered international community a locus standi to play a role in the resolution of the dispute.

By denying Pakistan this redress, India has left Pakistan no choice but to resort to bilateral means of pressuring India such as restricting the relationship. India too will respond specially along the Line of Control injecting tensions in the relations. Kashmiris may find armed resistance as the only way out now. And jihadists could get a new lease of life increasing the chances of terrorist incidents.

All this will enhance the risk of war. India is already walking back India’s nuclear no first use policy. And Pakistan military has upped the ante by expressing support for Kashmir’s independence.

Imran Khan has unleashed a global diplomatic offensive beyond the international media which has also censured India’s move, especially condemning the continued lockdown and communications black out that has created a colossal humanitarian crisis. Through Pakistan’s own diplomacy and China’s help, the UN Security Council (UNSC) met for first time in 50 years. Yet again Imran has avoided bluster, threats, and war rhetoric and shown mature leadership.

We have also seen U.S.-Pakistan relations in the headlines, with Khan’s visit to the United States and moves in relations since, including aid cuts to Pakistan and talk about the future of the American presence in Afghanistan. How would you assess the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations at this stage, and what are you watching to get a sense of how ties will evolve in the coming months?

Before Imran Khan’s visit to Washington last July, the U.S. had followed a simple policy. The U.S. had a policy on India, on China, on Afghanistan, and on combating jihadists. The policy on Pakistan was essentially derivative of these four policies. And its impact was negative as the U.S. brought all the leverage these policies gave into service against Pakistan – including suspension of security assistance, obstacles to the International Monetary Fund deal, threats against the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and use of the Financial Action Task Force – to seek Pakistan’s help in extricating itself from Afghanistan. Pakistan shifted its position by forcing the Taliban to be flexible and Washington also changed its tack. The White House visit was a reward. And then followed the shaping of the U.S.-Taliban deal we have been hearing about.

The U.S. policy of compellence must now give way to a proper policy as it needs continued cooperation with Pakistan not only to resolve the Afghanistan situation but also to get Pakistan’s help in fighting the transnational terrorists like al-Qaeda and ISIS and its own jihadists.  Pakistan’s nuclear assets and their safety also remain a national interest for Washington as stability in South Asia is one of its goals. From Washington’s perspective, Pakistan should not be left entirely dependent on China.

Another key relationship that continues to be in focus is Pakistan’s ties with China. In your view, how has the Khan government handled bilateral ties in that respect, and how do you see this evolving over time?

Pakistan has longstanding and close ties with China. Imran Khan’s government is further deepening them. Prior to his coming to power, Pakistan’s relations with China had come to be seen with skepticism in certain quarters. Pakistan’s growing debt crisis and falling foreign exchange reserves had triggered a concern that China was using financial leverage to put itself in favorable economic position. Imran Khan also had some concerns about the priorities of CPEC. China has managed to assuage both these concerns.

Relations with China will be the key strategic relationship for Pakistan around which other big power relations will be structured. And CEEC remains a bedrock of Pakistan’s hope for economic recovery. But Pakistan does not want to put all its eggs in the Chinese basket. U.S. will likely support China-Pakistan relations to some degree as it has important security interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan shared by China. China needs stabilization of Afghanistan for the sake of BRI’s success. And both have shared interest in Pakistan’s fight against the jihadists. So there will be U.S.-China limited convergence in a sense. All this might be an incentive for Washington not to rock the China-Pakistan relations lest it result in broader configurations such as a China-Pakistan-Iran axis.

Looking ahead, what do you think are some key factors or issues to watch in the evolution of Pakistan foreign policy under Imran Khan? 

The 21st century’s unstable power balances, the emerging bipolar US-China rivalry, and the post-9/11 security challenges have impacted South Asia. Pakistan is strategically vital because of its location at the crossroads of Afghanistan, Russia, China, India and Iran.  It could benefit from its location or be caught in the crossfire as South Asia becomes an arena for shifting and overlapping coalitions among regional and global players.

Pakistan will be in the eye of a developing storm as it faces on one side prospects of failure of Afghanistan, and on the other continued pressures from an assertive and dominant India while it continues to cope with its internal challenges. Of particular note are Pakistan’s own struggle against terrorism and extremism, and efforts at stabilization of economy and strengthening of democracy.

Successful navigation of all these challenges by Pakistan would require good relations with all big powers. Pakistan also needs to maintain the current balance between the relations with Iran and Arab countries. Improvement in relations with neighbors becomes an economic and political necessity for Pakistan if it is serious in benefiting from its geographic location by serving as a corridor for trade, and energy. Whether for survival or progress Pakistan’s foreign policy will have to find a balance between addressing its external security challenges and meeting its development needs at home.