Righting the wrongs: Pakistani foreign policy under Imran Khan

Pakistan’s descend from a developing country to a security state might have been gradual, but the last few years drastically hastened the pace. From enjoying a largely close relationship with the US and almost brokering a deal with India under General Pervez Musharraf in mid 2000s to Washington pushing for the country’s blacklisting in the Financial Action Task Force and New Delhi claiming to have conducted ‘surgical strikes’, the previous decade has been nothing short of a foreign policy disaster.

Things, however, seem to be moving forward since Pakistan Tehreek i Insaf government came to power. Imran Khan in his inaugural address as the prime minister first hinted at his plans when he talked of rapprochement with New Delhi, Kabul and Washington and strengthening ties with Muslim countries and China.

After taking office, Khan was faced with three major challenges at the foreign policy front: an increasingly impulsive White House under Trump which froze US military aid to Pakistan in less than a month of PTI forming government; an unstable Afghan government seeking a scapegoat for failing to contain the Taliban and thus very hostile towards Islamabad; and finally, the “arch enemy” India with whom any talks had stalled for over two years.

With India, the prime minister spoke of boosting trade ties and expressed his commitment to talks, a position he had iterated long before coming into power. In a letter to India’s Narendra Modi dated Sept 14, 2018, he proposed a meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers on the sidelines of United Nations General Assembly, which New Delhi initially accepted before turning it down soon after.

At his swearing in ceremony, Khan also invited his Indian cricketer friends of which Navjot Singh Sidhu, a Sikh politician in Punjab’s Legislative Assembly on a Congress Party ticket, showed up in a very welcome reception. There he was told about Pakistan government’s desire to open the Kartarpur corridor for pilgrims, a very sensitive matter for India’s Sikhs. While the proposal had been sitting with New Delhi for a decade, bringing it up again in a highly televised event threw limelight on it again, thus putting pressure on India to act quick or antagonise Sikhs.

Unsurprisingly, it worked. In less than three months, the groundbreaking ceremony was held with an Indian political and media delegation crossing the border into Pakistan. The calm wasn’t to last as in February this year, a suicide attack in the Indian-administered Kashmir killed over 40 reserve troops, which prompted New Delhi to enter Pakistani territory and drop bombs on what turned out to be trees. Islamabad soon retaliated with a symbolic strike, which led to a dog fight between the two air forces and resulted in an Indian helicopter crashing inside its own borders as well as its MiG downed on the Pakistani along with pilot.

The prime minister again called for restraint and warned against the use of military by two nuclear states, while also announcing to immediately release the captured pilot as a goodwill gesture and reiterating his desire to sit at the table with New Delhi.

For the past few years, nothing had been going right for Pakistan in terms of foreign policy as it continued failing the narrative war against India. The choice was clear: on the one hand there was one of the fastest growing economies and the biggest democracy, and on the other, a security state in the grip of terrorism and a barely functional economy. Though the latter might still hold, the country has lately made significant progress on the former, thanks to military operations against the Taliban.

Imran Khan soon raised the spectre at the United Nations General Assembly where he gave a four-point speech revolving around climate change, developed countries’ role in facilitating money laundering, Islamophobia, and finally India’s subjugation of human rights in Kashmir, which has been in a state of lockdown with communication blocked for around 60 days now,  where he spoke at length about BJP’s fascist ideology.

His repeated overtures towards talks might have failed to bring India to the table, but they have largely managed to bring a degree of credibility and personal commitment towards peace and Modi’s lack of interest thereof. And he’s used that fact tactfully in his public interactions, pointing towards New Delhi’s increasingly hawkish policy.

There has also been a noticeable improvement in US-Pakistan relationship, which kept sinking lower post Osama Bin Laden raid and hit its trough in early 2018. The primary bone of contention had been the Taliban where the two countries have seen a convergence of late as Trump seeks to withdraw troops from Afghanistan with Khan offering to use whatever influence he has over the Islamic militants. Pakistan has been part of the four-party meetings with just last week Islamabad hosting discussions with Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban. The two heads also had a good meeting in Washington first in July and then late September where the American President even offered to mediate for Kashmir – a stance in contrast with previous US leadership.

Since forming government, Imran Khan has given candid interviews to over nine international media channels so far, including the likes of Al Jazeera, BBC and Russia Today where he has repeatedly laid Islamabad’s vision for the region and beyond. He has also engaged with global think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations, United States Institute of Peace and the Asia Society and written op-eds for the New York Times and the Washington Post.

In contrast, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif never interviewed for any such major news organisation and only once addressed the United States Institute of Peace in his first two years. The trend was similar, with difference not as big though, in terms of the foreign tours taken by both the premiers with Imran Khan already (in 14 months) having been to some 16 visits versus Nawaz Sharif’s nine in the first 19 months.

It doesn’t end here. Sharif in his four years of rule also didn’t appoint a dedicated foreign minister and kept that portfolio to himself. Not known for his oratory skills or knowledge of history or world affairs, it inevitably translated into the lack of foreign policy engagement.

That wasn’t the only reason though: a constant struggle to stay in power against a belligerent opposition and non-cooperating military further took away the focus from the global stage and reduced the government to a largely domestic role. Under Khan, both military and civilian leadership are on the same page, as they have time and again stressed and the way foreign policy has evolved over the past year, there is little reason to doubt that.