Volume 22 Issue 9, September 2018


Imran Khan is Pakistan’s 22nd Prime Minister — after a grueling and arduous 22 year period. He campaigned on lofty promises of stamping out corruption, ushering in equality for all and ending Pakistan’s economic woes. But he is just about to discover the uphill climb he’s signed up for.

While the election season earned Khan the title of the Establishment’s “darling,” he may find that not even darlings get a carte blanche. He is as hot-headed and impulsive as they come — a trait deemed burdensome in the realm of diplomacy and foreign policy. While in his victory speech, Imran Khan may have earned praise for committing to foreign relations based on mutual respect and equality, the global reality is far different, with Pakistan being on the lower margins of many economic indicators. Multilateral and bilateral relations require steadiness, patience and long-term strategy. An isolationist approach, as advocated previously, is not one that Pakistan can afford.

By many measures, the PTI government will find that it too has to adopt the same measures that it has criticized previous governments for. On India, Imran Khan has offered to make positive overtures and take two steps forward for every step India takes towards Pakistan. While in rhetoric this sounds productive and efficient, in reality this is exactly what the Imran government criticized the PMLN government for doing. The harsher reality still is that regardless of a civilian government’s positioning on India, the reins of the relationship still lie with the powers that be. Khan will find that he will have to tow the military line at a time of deep conflict and as Mr. Modi gears up for the election season (anticipated to flex bellicose rhetoric peppered with anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiment).

There is nothing essentially wrong in Pakistan standing its ground and refusing to tolerate disrespect, dismissal and degradation. It, however, needs ground to stand on. Mr. Prime Minister’s golden card may just be economic reform and financial strength. His newly appointed Finance Minister, Asad Umar, brings a wealth of international banking and global economic experience which, if leveraged right, could begin to SLOWLY show gradual gains, allowing Pakistan to strengthen its political diplomacy. Let’s also not discount perhaps the biggest trump card in Pakistan’s pocket currently — China. The presence, interest and investment pumped into the Pakistani economy (though detrimental in the long-run) may just help strengthen the country’s regional position in the short-to-medium term.

History matters significantly in politics and, as it stands, the establishment may well be supportive and perhaps even amenable, to Khan’s positive stance towards India as long as he undertakes nominal steps and doesn’t preach from a PML-N or PPP pulpit.

On the Afghan front, Imran Khan has traditionally advocated peace agreements and adopted a hard line against NATO and US involvement. However, an open border policy, especially just months after the Pakistan Army invested resources in setting up a tangible border, is unlikely to sit well. Taliban Khan, as many have termed him for “sympathizing” with the Taliban, will have to tinker his civilian rhetoric and policies to adapt to the ever changing “official” stance towards the Afghan question.

Domestic and internal challenges aside, Prime Minister Khan will face tough times on the international playing field. His recently announced portfolio of ministers and advisors is a far cry from the Naya Pakistan he promised. With Shah Mahmood Qureshi (SMQ) appointed as Foreign Minister, much of the same can be expected — and that may not be a bad thing. SMQ understands the portfolio well, having held it from March 2008 till February 2011 during the PPP government. It is expected that SMQ may be able to balance Khan’s more impulsive policies and demanding rants. Ultimately, whether it’s defence or foreign policy, the civilian government is likely to operate under a limited cover.

As Khan builds up his cabinet and government further, he would be best advised to lean on experienced advisors who have previously been balanced and critical of the PTI’s stance on a range of international issues. Trapped in an echo chamber surrounded by sycophants is not going to prove particularly effective or helpful for a political party that is trying its hands at heading a national government for the first time.

If Khan’s first address to the nation is anything to go by, it is evident that the PTI government is serious about delivering basic needs and truly ushering in change and a ‘Naya Pakistan’, both internally and on the international scale. Should Khan be able to secure even ten percent of all that he promises, his government will be the first to usher in systemic change in a country increasingly crippled by debt and drowning under loans. Internal strength will allow Pakistan to become a robust international player — a point Khan belaboured during his address. While he has come down strong on economic equality and strength, the nation is yet to learn how Khan will respond to a true diplomatic or international crisis. Instinct dictates impulsive decisions but Khan may surprise as he has recently — adopting a more balanced, mature approach.

Perhaps his first test and engagement will be the upcoming United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) summit scheduled for mid-September. In a world where Pakistan is increasingly isolated on the global stage, Khan’s team has its work cut out for it. However, his mature and cohesive approach so far reflected in the composition of his team of advisors and ministers bodes well for the future.

Ultimately, even Imran’s critics would agree that now with him at the helm of affairs, should Khan succeed, even nominally, Pakistan will benefit enormously. We are all in the same boat and can either choose to sink or swim — our egos will determine which path we as a nation choose to adopt.

The writer is a policy analyst based in Islamabad. She writes on issues of international conflict.  

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