Prime Minister Imran Khan has been an independent-minded politician with strong views on issues, but the weight of running the government of a state facing complex security, economic and political challenges could prompt even someone like him to dilute his language and views.
Some of Imran Khan’s past comments are well recorded. These include his criticism of the way the United States of America is waging its war on terror, his patriotism-filled tirades directed at India for its anti-Pakistan moves and brutal tactics to suppress Kashmiris struggling against Indian rule, and his past sympathy for the Afghan Taliban waging war to liberate their homeland from the occupying foreign forces.
His statements had repercussions. Some of his critics, mostly in the West, continue to accuse him of anti-Americanism, the Indian rightists and media raised a hue and cry when he won the July 25 general election in Pakistan by portraying him as a villain as far as India is concerned, and the Afghan government lashed out against him and civil society groups staged protests in Kabul when Imran Khan argued in October 2012 that the Afghan Taliban were fighting ‘jihad’ (holy war) for freedom against foreign occupation.
However, those statements were made over the course of many years when Imran Khan was an opposition politician and was seeking a role for his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in Pakistan’s crowded political space. He was gradually maturing as a politician and talking in more measured tones as his political base grew. Now that he is finally in power after 22 years in the political wilderness, he knows he has to talk and act responsibly as every word he utters and any move he makes would quickly make headlines and have implications for Pakistan.
Nowhere is this challenge more evident than in the context of Pakistan’s foreign policy as the country seeks to repair its relations with the US and balance this with its old and steadfast relationship with China. Then there is the 71-year old Jammu & Kashmir dispute that has been a major roadblock in mending ties with neighbouring India, which wants Pakistan to focus more on tackling terrorism than Kashmir. And to the West, conflict-hit Afghanistan is adamant just like the US that Islamabad isn’t doing enough to bring Taliban leaders to the negotiations table or acting against the irreconcilable elements among them based in Pakistan.
The PTI-led coalition government did well to appoint a foreign minister in the first batch of the federal cabinet that was unveiled by Prime Minister Imran Khan. The decision stood out if compared with the PML-N government of Premier Nawaz Sharif who intriguingly kept the foreign minister’s portfolio with himself and earned criticism for ignoring Pakistan’s foreign policy challenges.
When Nawaz Sharif was deposed from office by the Supreme Court and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi replaced him as the prime minister, Khwaja Asif was made the foreign minister and he did reasonably well in his brief tenure before getting disqualified by another court order.
The PTI’s choice of foreign minister is the best in the circumstances as Shah Mahmood Qureshi has held this office in the past and is aware of the issues that Pakistan is facing. Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar, a former minister of state for foreign affairs, and Dr Shireen Mazari, too, may have aspired for the job, but they were accommodated as ministers with the portfolios of planning and human rights, respectively.
The uneasy relations with the US became evident in the very beginning of PTI’s term in office when Islamabad and Washington came up with different explanations of the recent phone call that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made to Prime Minister Imran Khan. Pakistan termed as factually incorrect the US State Department claim that Pompeo raised the importance of Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan and its vital role in promoting the Afghan peace process.
With the two sides sticking to their positions, the US made available the transcript of the conversation to prove its point while Pakistan decided not to pursue the issue further to avoid creating misunderstandings at a time when the relationship is suffering from acute trust deficit.
The opposition parties criticised the fact the prime minister took the call as they felt the foreign minister should have talked to Mike Pompeo keeping in view the diplomatic protocol. In fact, Foreign Office officials claimed they proposed that Shah Mahmood Qureshi should take the call, but were over-ruled. This should be an apt lesson for the new premier, who has never held public office, to avoid embarrassing situations.
One hopes this issue won’t come up for discussion when Pompeo arrives in Pakistan on September 5 along with the Pentagon chief General Joseph Dunford, the chairman Joints Chiefs of Staff Committee. However, both the issues reportedly highlighted by Pompeo in his phone talk with Imran Khan — decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan and Islamabad’s vital role in promoting the Afghan peace process — would certainly be at the centre of the discussion as has been the case all these years.
In fact, Secretary of Defence retired General James Mattis mentioned it beforehand when he said fighting the menace of terrorism will be the primary part of the discussions during Pompeo’s Islamabad visit because terrorism was their common foe.
Obviously, Islamabad has a different take on these issues unlike the US which has brought down its relations with Pakistan to the single point of its interest to seek its help to fight terrorism and stabilise Afghanistan. Islamabad’s objections to the use of Afghanistan’s soil by the Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies in the presence of US-led Nato forces to destabilise Pakistan hasn’t received the required attention from Washington.
Also, the growing closeness between India and the US and the curtailment of American security assistance to Pakistan since January 2018 are also matters of concern for Islamabad. In fact, the drop in US security and economic assistance to Pakistan has reduced whatever leverage it had on it and Islamabad has now little incentive to do the American bidding that it readily did in the past.
The visit by Pompeo and Dunford would provide them an opportunity to listen to Pakistan’s new elected leaders and make an assessment of their authority vis-à-vis the country’s powerful military. Shah Mahmood Qureshi had put a brave face when he insisted that Pakistan’s foreign policy would be made in the Foreign Office with input from all state institutions, especially those concerning security aspects, as is done in other countries.
As for India, there is little chance of any breakthrough in resuming the dialogue despite the good intentions that were on display when Imran Khan in his victory speech offered talks to New Delhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi called him to congratulate him on winning the election. Some ‘cricket diplomacy’ was also played when Imran Khan invited three Indian cricket stars of his era — Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Navjot Singh Sidhu — to his oath-taking ceremony and the current Indian Test team sent him a signed bat. Though only Sidhu braved criticism at home to come to Pakistan, the two goodwill gestures in view of the unfriendly Pak-India relations could be viewed as a plus point.
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One cannot expect any major changes in Pakistan’s foreign policy under the Imran Khan government even though the prime minister would like to be more assertive and responsive to the aspirations of the people. He has pledged to focus first on domestic issues, such as the economy and refrain from attending the UN General Assembly session in September and undertaking foreign visits.
This means Shah Mahmood Qureshi would be playing the lead role in shaping the relevant policies with inputs from Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua and her team.