Cricket star turned politician Imran Khan is all set to become Pakistan’s next prime minister. During his victory speech, Khan shared his meritorious manifesto and pledged wide-ranging reforms, especially to safeguard ordinary citizens’ interests. In the light of the country’s rising economic downturn, Khan also offered a glimpse of his foreign policy priorities, a much overdue portfolio.
He called for better ties with neighbors Afghanistan, China, India, and Iran but said little about the flimsy relationship with the United States. However, he did call for “mutually beneficial” and “more balanced” ties instead of the current “one-way” state of the relationship, which he uttered had left Pakistan in a lurch. Although it is too soon to predict whether Khan will achieve success in this regard, historical evidence might give us an idea.
To start off, the relation between Pakistan and the U.S. is already facing a down-spiral after the U.S. had suspended nearly all security aid to Pakistan over questions of their commitment to fight terrorism. During Khan’s victory speech, he did not address what many in Washington see as a critical issue: taking action against terrorists and in particular the Haqqani militants, a Taliban offshoot operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions.
He did emphasize the preeminent role Pakistan will play under his regime in bringing peace in Afghanistan, the ultimate goal of the unending war on terror in the region. Khan also called for open borders with Afghanistan to further strengthen the peaceful relations that the U.S. also concedes.
In the past, Khan sharply criticized the U.S. on its counterterrorism policies and drone attacks killing suspected Taliban extremists in Pakistan’s border areas. Moreover, Khan sympathizes with the Taliban. The provincial government of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in northwest Pakistan, led by Khan’s party, earlier this year approved a Rs 277 million ($2.2 million) grant for a pro-Taliban seminary. In the past, students from this school had been involved in many terrorist attacks even within Pakistan’s own borders.
It is pertinent to mention that Khan was averse to the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the continual presence of American troops in the region. Khan was also a critic of the concealed mission to take out al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, claiming that “civilized countries follow due process.”
Given above facts, one can argue that Khan may not pursue a hardline policy towards the Taliban and other terrorist groups operating in the country and, therefore, may not represent the partner the U.S. wants and needs.
It is an established fact that Khan is the favorite of the Pakistani military generals, who are calling the shots in the country. Ever since the Donald J. Trump’s administration’s suspended U.S. military aid, these generals have not heeded U.S. qualms over fighting the militant groups Washington worries for.
Unlike a cricket match, Khan cannot play a free hit in orchestrating his foreign policy without seeking advice from the establishment. Failing to deliver better ties, especially with the U.S., will put the country in the same boat as the former government, which can further harm the failing economy.
US and War on Terror
The U.S. has two major concerns when it comes to its relationship with Pakistan: bringing peace in Afghanistan and Islamabad’s commitment to quelling terrorists operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
For Washington, a balanced relationship with Islamabad is only possible if Pakistan assures and demonstrates adequate action against terrorist networks. However, Khan, being the military’s “favorite” candidate, would be least likely to confront this issue and during his speech, he eschewed from commenting on taking adequate steps to curb terrorism.
Washington will undoubtedly consider Khan’s outwardly pro-Taliban sympathies before extending him avenues to review snags in Islamabad’s policy towards militants’ groups and bring about “more balanced” ties with the U.S.
Moreover, the U.S. will also deliberate, beforehand, whether Khan’s government will coordinate with the U.S.’ unending grinding war against terror groups in Afghanistan-Pakistan borders.
Pakistan, as a major non-NATO ally and a crucial partner in the region, is always considered a key role player in this war in the American military’s strategy against terrorism and the U.S. will still consider the country as part of the solution to the terrorism problem.
Khan would have to relent his populist anti-American eloquence, as the U.S. is yet the most significant player in the regional calculus. His ambition to establish a modus vivendi with hostile states will become clearer once he takes office.
Given the current scenario, where the Pentagon is already reviewing its military policy for Afghanistan and the Afghan government also anticipates to embark peace dialogs with the Taliban, it will be too soon to predict whether Khan will cut the mustard in brokering what he argued “mutually beneficial and more balanced ties.”
It is clear that Khan’s government will undoubtedly have a hard time delivering better ties with the U.S. without addressing the terrorism issue assertively.