Less than a month after taking office, Pakistan’s new coalition government is already having to navigate a foreign policy quagmire. It wants to reestablish cordial relations with America and end the anti-Americanism of its predecessor government. This was done in an April 10 vote of no confidence. The other is that they cannot afford to be perceived as cozying up and assisting America. This could lead to it believing the claims of Imran Khan, ousted prime minister, that it was installed in a Washington regime change operation.
In the capital Islamabad, the popularity of Khan’s conspiracy theory has caught the new coalition by surprise. At the center of the row is a diplomatic cable sent on March 7 by Pakistan’s then ambassador to Washington, Asad Majeed Khan. According to the U.S. State Department, this missive relays an assessment of Pakistan’s relationship with Washington that suggests Pakistani ties have suffered under former Prime Minister. It has been seized on by his supporters as evidence of Washington’s ill intentions.
The furor over “cablegate,” as it is referred to in Pakistan, led newly elected Prime Minister Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif to convene a meeting of the National Security Committee on April 21, where the document was scrutinized at length. It was not possible to find evidence of any foreign conspiracy.
Continue reading: How Imran Khan’s Future Could Shape Geopolitics
Khan will not be deterred by this. After being removed as president, Khan embarked upon a provocative speaking trip, where he addressed large audiences of his supporters. They have accepted his story and made him a political martyr. Twitter has become a focal point of the struggle for public opinion.ImportedHukoomatNaManzoor—imported government is unacceptable—have trended for several days. It seems like the Khan-led Tehreek-e-Insaaf party is tapping into an antipathy towards the United States. This group has been detested among others for its support of Israel and forcing Pakistan to join the War on Terror.
Blaming America is a political no-brainer for Khan, whose tough stance on U.S.-led drone strikes in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was widely admired. Now, ahead of a planned 2023 poll, he is again positioning himself as the anti-America candidate and capitalizing on the public’s mistrust of Washington to pressure the coalition government, which needs U.S. support to bail out the country’s cash-strapped economy.
Imran Khan (former Pakistan Prime Minister) addresses Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters in Lahore, April 21, 2022.
Arif ALI/ AFP via Getty Images
After talks in Washington, Pakistan’s newly appointed finance minister, Miftah Ismail, announced on April 24 that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had agreed to extend its loan program for another year as well as increase the size of the bailout from $6 billion to $8 billion. The announcement was met with scorn by many of Khan’s supporters, who accused the government of being American puppets. The coalition government will likely limit American engagement because of the pressure in the home. Any cooperation with the West would be interpreted as evidence for foreign-funded skullduggery.
Among the political and military elite, there is unease as to the direction in which the country’s foreign policy should pivot. The reputation of the U.S. as an unreliable ally has been amplified by the warming of relations between Washington and New Delhi—particularly in the spheres of intelligence sharing and defense cooperation.
Some quarters have suggested that Pakistan should increase its relations with the Kremlin. This strategy led Khan to travel to Moscow the same day Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine. That invasion, and the hostility with which it was received by the international community, has brought about something of a strategic rethink in Islamabad, not least because Pakistan’s trade with the U.S. dwarfs its trade with Russia, but because Pakistan’s economy is still reliant on institutions like the IMF, where Washington retains a large degree of influence.
Continue reading: Imran Khan’s own demise was sealed by his acceptance of Putin
Another complicating factor is that the Pakistani government would like to revitalize the $46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. The CPEC deal was inked in 2015, when the present prime minister’s elder brother, Nawaz, was in office. The project was the then government’s flagship development before it was stalled by Khan for being too closely aligned with his political opponents.
The current administration will face almost impossible diplomatic problems if it makes any further overtures towards China about the CPEC. Washington and Beijing are in strategic conflict. It may decide not to pursue any diplomacy. Imran Khan has already made plans to strike ahead of the elections that are just a little more than a year away.
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