Imran Khan’s foolhardy flight into war zone

Critics in Pakistan have used the unflattering but universal saying “fools rush in….” to describe their Prime Minister Imran Khan’s flight to Moscow, the capital of what is decidedly the world’s latest war zone. There is dismay, even concern, reportedly among the military brass that run Pakistan remotely, at Khan’s two-day visit to the Russian Federation when the latter is engaged in a war-like action in Ukraine that has brought a weary world close to a military conflict.

For one, Khan has chosen to get cosy with President Vladimir Putin when his own house is on fire – politically because of a no-confidence motion being readied against his government, and economically, because of the dire stress it is in and badly requires a hefty loan, of all the places, from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He would need to win a semblance of confidence from the West, especially the United States. His supping with the devil, in a manner of speaking, may cost him any sympathy from the Biden administration and others in the West who are getting pitted against Putin’s Russia over the latter’s action of amassing troops and weapons in Ukraine.

Bad diplomacy

It is bad diplomacy. But Imran Khan has been carrying his anti-American rhetoric too far, even believing in it, as he wants to be in love with his own words. The crisis over Ukraine makes it bad timing for Pakistan. Khan could have cancelled or postponed the Moscow visit. But if media reports in Islamabad are to be believed, he was not invited by Moscow had sought invitation from Putin who obviously has better and more urgent things – indeed a self-created crisis on hand – to resolve. He should be the world’s busiest leader at this moment with a long-drawn crisis on hand. Khan was a celebrated cricketer and captained his country for long years in this British game that requires an excellent sense of timing. That gives fillip to the suspicion that he has lost that sense of timing.

This impression is being strengthened at home, among his friends and foes – perhaps, also the military brass for whom he is the alleged proxy in power. On that score, it is worth noting how the military brass is taking his antiAmerican tirade, day in and day out since the US quit Afghanistan. Pakistan under Imran has given the world the impression of a victor, like a cat that is licking its whiskers after having killed and devoured a mouse. His tirade and advocacy of Taliban, the new rulers in Kabul, has already had the effect of rubbing salt on America’s Afghanistan-inflicted wounds. It is too churlish a behaviour for the prime minister of a country just because President Biden, after a full year in office, has not thought it necessary to even telephone Khan, leave along invite him to Washington. The fact is that the US is yet undecided about where Pakistan stands in the post-Afghanistan scenario in South, West and Central Asia. On the other hand, Khan has been petulant by criticising, not just the US, but also fellow-Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for doing business with rival India. To return to Khan’s Moscow visit, it is unclear what the urgency could be.

Imran Khan in Moscow

There is no windfall promised and no major agreement in the offing. Pakistan needs money, but Russia is hardly the country it can hope to seek and secure a loan from. Here, again, it is possibly the India factor troubling Khan. Each time there is a move or a statement from Moscow aimed at Islamabad, the latter gets excited. The impression given out to the domestic media is that Pakistan is succeeding in weaning Russia away from India. That the two old allies are no longer that close in strategic terms is known. But any notion that the two could fall apart, when 70 percent of Indian armament is of Russian origin would be foolish. Also, India is a major buyer of defence soft and hardware in the global market and can offer more business to Russia than Pakistan can.

The suspicion of the “India angle” in Khan’s Moscow visit arises from the interview he gave RT, the official Russian TV network, on the eve of his visit. He chose to speak, not on Pakistan-Russia relations, but on India. In the course of the interview, he invited his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for a television debate through which to resolve all disputes with India. The offer is non-serious, and one does not have to be an expert in politics or diplomacy to say that Modi may not even bother to respond. Unsurprisingly, Pakistani security experts have asked if he had gone to Moscow with any strategy in mind. They have urged him to “be careful” while dealing with Putin. For, despite varying stances on strategic issues, Putin retains high regard for India and for Modi as a leader.

The Moscow visit goes well with Khan’s notion of diplomacy. One need not be surprise if he offers to mediate between Russia and the US. It is laughable but Khan has indulged in this messianic talk before. He has been occasionally grand-standing like wanting to mediate between any two sides in conflict. He has offered to mediate between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, for instance, when both are economically stronger than Pakistan. He also wants to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. He has a penchant for punching above his weight.