ONE DAY BACK in March 2012, I was serving as a panellist at an event at Columbia University on US-Pakistan relations. At the time, the bilateral relationship was struggling to recover from one of its most difficult periods in recent memory. A succession of crises—the infamous Raymond Davis affair, when a CIA contractor opened fire on a busy street in Lahore, killing two Pakistanis; the US unilateral raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad; and a Nato strike on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that killed at least two dozen Pakistani troops—had plunged the partnership into deep freeze.
Once the event’s question-and-answer session began, a Pakistani student seated at the back of the room raised his hand and waved it around wildly. He clearly wanted to make a point, and quickly. I expected him to pose a question—or deliver a polemic—about the wrong-headedness of US policy in Pakistan, or to chastise America in some other way.
What he actually said surprised me.
He asked me how the US government would respond if Imran Khan were to become Pakistan’s prime minister.
The query was jarring, simply because it sounded so removed from reality. At that time, with about a year to go until Pakistan’s 2013 national election, Khan was working on raising the profile of his relatively small Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. He was certainly an up-and-coming political player, but at that moment, the thought of Khan actually holding national power seemed quite fanciful.
I didn’t really have an answer for this young man, one of the many ardent young fans of Khan known as ‘insafians’, other than to utter a platitude that likely made me sound more like a State Department spokesperson than a think-tank analyst: “I’m sure the US would be willing to engage with whatever leader is running Pakistan’s government.”
At that time in Washington, there were mixed views on Khan. Clearly the US government was paying attention to him. When US diplomats about to be posted to the US embassy in Islamabad would meet me, they would specifically ask me what I thought about him.
While some analysts I knew back then would dismiss him as a bit player not worth taking seriously, my own view was somewhat different. I didn’t expect him to hold power anytime soon, but there was still something about him that made me think he was someone to watch, and closely. Above all, he was demonstrating a striking ability—enhanced by his celebrity status as a national cricket hero—to tap into an underlying grievance harboured by a critical constituency in Pakistan.
Indeed, he was shining a bright and unrelenting light on the systemic corruption embedded in Pakistan’s political class, and arguing that he—an incorruptible leader who harboured no ties with the family dynasties that dominated Pakistani politics, and who truly had the public interest at heart—represented something new and bold, that he was someone who could take Pakistan in an exciting new direction. While some in Pakistan (and certainly in the US) were dismissing his act as a purely Pollyannaish pursuit, others—particularly members of the young, conservative, urban, middle-class in the province of Punjab—were galvanised.
From a political perspective, if you’re winning over that demographic group, then you’re doing something right. Pakistan, after all, is a young, conservative, urbanising country with a growing middle-class. And Punjab, the most populous province in Pakistan, is always the top electoral prize.
There was another reason to be taking Khan seriously at that time, in the months leading up to the 2013 election in Pakistan. Rumours were starting to emerge that Khan—once a critic of the military, particularly during the pro-democracy movement of 2007 and 2008 that eventually led Pervez Musharraf to step down as military leader—was cultivating increasingly close ties with the army. In Pakistan, a civilian leader aspiring to do big things politically needs to secure the military’s support. And Khan was getting the memo.
Imran Khan’s victory proves that there truly is a third way in Pakistani politics and that civilian leaders can achieve ultimate success without any ties to family dynasties and their political parties
SIX YEARS LATER, the question posed to me by that young Pakistani man at Columbia has proven remarkably prophetic. Washington must now confront what a Prime Minister Imran Khan will mean for the US. India will have to ask itself the same question. But the question is most immediate for Pakistan itself. What does his triumph mean for all those Pakistanis who voted for him—and for those that did not?
At home, Imran Khan is a complex figure, and he inspires a variety of reactions. For his supporters, his electoral triumph marks a majestic milestone in Pakistan’s political history. Forget the fact that the recently concluded poll represents a decade of uninterrupted civilian rule in the country. Much more important, according to partisans of Khan, is what is represented by the man who won the poll: his victory proves that there truly is a third way in Pakistani politics, and that civilian leaders can achieve ultimate success without any ties to family dynasties and their political parties—particularly the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The country, according to Khan’s supporters, is about to embark on an exciting new era known as ‘Naya (new) Pakistan’.
For Khan’s detractors, however, his victory simply means more of the same. They point to how the PTI has changed in recent years. It has brought on board leaders from the established political parties that Khan so often deplores. And in the recent election, Khan embraced their tactics. For example, he sought to win to his side a number of powerful parliamentarians, known as ‘electables’, because of their strong influence in society—and easy ability to attract votes.
Khan’s detractors also point to his close connections to the military, and suggest that these warm ties will merely amplify the one constant in Pakistan’s volatile politics: the army as the most powerful player.
In reality, no one truly knows what to expect of Khan. He is unpredictable, he frequently flip-flops on policy issues, and, of course, he has never wielded national power. He has already laid out a bold plan to eliminate corruption, generate millions of new jobs and establish an Islamic welfare system. The confident Khan has maintained the win-at-all-costs mentality from his cricketing days, and he surely believes he can pull this all off.
However, he faces a very tough road, to say the least. It’s been quite some time since Pakistani politics was so fraught and polarised. The opposition could prove to be obstructionist, hampering the PTI’s ability to pass even modest legislation. The PML-N has been sparring with the PTI since 2013, when the latter concluded that the election that year, won by the PML-N, was rigged. With the 2018 polls, the accusations are similar— the election wasn’t free or fair—but the accusers have changed. The PML-N believes the PTI was in cahoots with an army effort to engineer an electoral outcome that would deliver a victory to the PTI. Other parties have also denounced the July 25th election as a sham, and several of them have vowed to take to the streets.
Khan will also face major and immediate policy challenges that will constrain his ability to usher in the ‘Naya Pakistan’ that he has long promised his supporters and is now promising the whole country. Eliminating corruption will have to take a backseat to a looming economic crisis. How the PTI addresses Pakistan’s rapidly declining foreign exchange reserves and worsening balance of payments problems will constitute the new government’s first real test.
Beyond that, the PTI will have to confront a raft of serious, long-standing policy challenges that can no longer be kicked down the road. These range from alarming water shortages to education and public health crises. There is also the problem of extremism, which continues to rear its ugly head—witness the spate of terrorist attacks on electoral candidates in the days before July 25th—even as terrorist violence, for now, has declined.
To expect a neophyte like Khan to tackle these immediate pressing challenges, while at the same time crafting and implementing a bold, ambitious and unprecedented new reform programme—one that vested interests on the civilian and military sides alike would likely resent—comes across as too tall an order. Such reflexive scepticism is understandable. Then again, Khan, the cricket star-turned-populist politician with the win-at-all-costs mentality, is like no previous Pakistani leader. He could well surprise some people.
We shouldn't overstate the significance of Khan’s recent vows to improve ties with New Delhi—given that the Pakistani army, which is in no rush to reconcile with India, could ask Khan to rein in such rhetoric
ONE WAY HE’D surprise people is by defying the conventional wisdom when it comes to Pakistan’s relations with India. Few would disagree with the assertion that the Pakistani army has the final—and often first—word on foreign policy. In this regard, according to the conventional wisdom, Khan will have little impact on India, given that the army will continue to manage that portfolio.
In this sense, we shouldn’t overstate the significance of Khan’s recent vows to improve trade ties, and overall ties, with New Delhi—given that the Pakistani army, which is in no rush to reconcile with India, could ask Khan to rein in such rhetoric. Khan, despite his reputation as a strong, independent leader unwilling to listen to those he doesn’t agree with, is unlikely to push back. After all, he wants to maintain his hold on the power he has long sought.
For Khan and the military, a core goal of their India policy is to negotiate a resolution to a Kashmir dispute that India believes has already been resolved. So for all of Khan’s talk about engaging more with India, New Delhi won’t want to accept an olive branch that has ‘Kashmir’ written all over it. Additionally, Khan—a man who has praised the Taliban’s war in Afghanistan and opposed going after Pakistani Taliban terrorists that butcher civilians in Pakistan—is not about to ask the Pakistani military to hunt down Hafiz Saeed, or other India-focused terrorists in Pakistan.
All this is to say we probably shouldn’t expect breakthroughs in India-Pakistan relations under Imran Khan. But then again, Khan is like no other previous Pakistani leader. Thanks in great part to his cricket career, he retains connections and friends in India. Khan may push for reinvigorating the cultural ties between the two countries that have frayed in recent years. He could make a pitch for more cricket matches, more Bollywood-Lollywood exchanges and more bilateral cultural cooperation on the whole. This could replenish repositories of goodwill in the bilateral relationship, and perhaps set the stage for a resumption of regular dialogue. Of course, this all depends on whether the Pakistani army is on board, and if there is a willing partner in India. On the latter, we may not know the answer until after India’s General Election next year.
KHAN COULD ALSO be a catalyst for better cultural ties between Pakistan and the US. This is another fraught relationship unlikely to improve in a big way anytime soon. A Prime Minister Khan may be willing to play ball with the US on Afghanistan—but only to an extent. We can expect him to be on board with the US requests for Pakistan to prod the Taliban to go to the negotiating table. As for Washington’s other main ask—eliminating the permissive environment in Pakistan for terrorists that stage attacks in Afghanistan (and India)—don’t expect Khan to be particularly receptive.
The US and Pakistan have their fair share of cultural relations, thanks in great part to the State Department-administered exchange programmes that regularly bring together American and Pakistani journalists, students, scholars and others in both countries. Still, as the bilateral relationship has suffered in recent years, enthusiasm for such initiatives has waned. We’re a long way from the 1950s, when Hollywood stars were shooting films in Lahore.
What’s often forgotten about Khan, amid his incessant and shrill anti-American messaging (you can be sure US officials haven’t forgotten his vow some years ago to shoot down US drones if he took power), is that he and especially his party have major links with America. Pakistan’s US-based diaspora—a largely prosperous, well-educated community of about 500,000—counts many PTI supporters and some PTI fundraisers among its ranks. For reasons as unknown as they are striking, Pakistani-Americans—at least based on my own conversations with them over the years—appear to support Imran Khan more than any other leader in Pakistan.
Diasporas can be a bridge over the troubled waters of diplomacy and they can help stabilise problematic partnerships. Khan may well galvanise an engaged and enthusiastic, though frequently disorganised, Pakistani-American community and compel it to mobilise in ways that enable common Pakistanis and Americans to engage more frequently—even if their governments may prefer to disengage.
IMRAN KHAN HAS arrived. It’s too early to know what type of imprint he’ll leave at home and on his relations with key capitals. He could have his hands full at home, and— thanks to the army—he could have his hands tied abroad. Accordingly, his impact on domestic politics may not be as transformational as he’d like, and his ability to shape relations with Pakistan’s neighbours and the US could be similarly limited. If he tries to blaze too independent a trail, he could trigger a new round of civil-military tensions and imperil the position he’s long coveted and will now assume.
Indeed, for Khan to be a truly transformational reformer in Pakistan’s domestic and international politics, the army will need to be fully behind him, or to defer to him entirely. Both assumptions are questionable, given that Pakistan’s armed forces prefer that civilian leaders be pliant, not powerful. Unless, that is, the army—as Khan’s supporters claim—is happy to defer to a preternaturally clean and competent civilian leader. Perhaps. Still, given the army’s long and deep track record of political involvement, this military-will-cede-ground theory is questionable.
Where Khan could truly succeed is in bolstering people-to- people relations between Pakistani citizens and their counterparts in India and the US. Khan, by leveraging his celebrity and his ties, and his party’s ties, in these two countries, could help strengthen the oft-overlooked ‘unofficial’ dimensions of Pakistan’s most troubled bilateral relationships. In so doing, by strengthening cultural ties, he could generate more of the trust and goodwill that is often in short supply in these countries’ relationships with Pakistan.
Such a feat may not be transformational, but it would still be admirable. In today’s nasty and brutish world, we can all use more trust and goodwill.