Pakistani politician Imran Khan could become the country’s next premier after the July 25 vote, but his stance against the US’ role in Afghanistan could be a hurdle in the Trump administration’s dealings with Islamabad.
Pakistani politician Imran Khan is known in the US as a philanthropist who operates a world-class charity hospital in his country. He is also admired as a sportsman whose stunning looks charmed many Western women. But he is yet to make an impact as a politician in Washington.
When DW asked US officials whether they would like to work with Khan if he became Pakistan’s prime minister after the July 25 general election, they gave a smooth, diplomatic response, which says all without saying much.
“The US government supports a free and fair vote by the Pakistani people, and stands ready to partner with the leadership they choose to work on a shared agenda for regional peace and prosperity,” said a State Department spokesperson.
The statement says a lot about the US position on Khan, who heads the popular Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI, Movement for Justice) party.
Khan is not a Bhutto or a Sharif that Washington has dealt with and knows how to cope with in a particular situation. But analysts say he will have to work with Washington to prevent militant attacks in both Afghanistan and India.
In private conversations, former US diplomats and think-tank experts often recall a statement in which the cricketer-turned-politician threatened to shoot down any US drone that hits a target inside Pakistan if he was elected to power.
Khan’s statement scared Pakistan’s powerful military establishment as well. The generals feared that if elected, Khan could further strain Pakistan’s already tense relations with the US.
But over the years, Khan has worked on polishing his statements and tries not to say something that he would later regret. He does not always succeed, as his recent anti-West statements show.
The State Department, however, does not want to appear to be opposing a popular Pakistani politician — someone who is one of the favorites to win the next election.
But the State Department retains the key US demand of maintaining regional peace and prosperity.
“For the US, the idea of a Prime Minister Imran Khan may be unsettling, given how he and his party have been stridently anti-American in tone and messaging in ways that the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League of former PM Nawaz Sharif) have not been,” Michael Kugelman, an expert of South Asian affairs at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, told DW.
Kugelman also said the State Department understands the role of the military in Pakistani politics.
“At the same time, given that the Pakistani military has the final — and often times first-say in policy toward the US — and given that the military is very keen on salvaging the US-Pakistan relationship, I wouldn’t be surprised if a [possible] PTI-led government were to tone down its anti-American messaging and project a more conciliatory position toward Washington, at least initially,” he said.
This is a hope that the State Department, obviously, shares with him but is unwilling to say so publicly.
Earlier this month, when Washington felt the need to solicit Pakistan’s support for a temporary ceasefire in Afghanistan, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not call the Pakistani prime minister, foreign minister or even the president; instead, he telephoned the country’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. And the general not only did what Washington wanted, he also flew over to Kabul to discuss the possibilities of a durable peace with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Diplomatic observers in Washington say that the Trump administration now wants Islamabad to use its influence on the Taliban, particularly on the militant Haqqani Network, to make them talk to Kabul.
So, there’s little surprise that Pakistan experts in Washington, both in the official and unofficial circles, believe that the army can also make Khan behave.
“The trend lines for US-Pakistan relations are not good no matter what party takes over the next Pakistani government. But I don’t think a PTI-led government would necessarily make it any worse,” said Kugelman, underlining another key point: the new government in Pakistan — no matter who heads it — will have to work hard to rebuild the once-close relationship with Washington.
Hussain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, and now a senior fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington, says that the US would deal with Khan as “they have with every Pakistani leader, even those elected amid anti-American rhetoric.”
“Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto portrayed himself as anti-American and yet went to see President Richard Nixon before taking office, to explain that he wanted US blessings even though he was seen as an America baiter,” Haqqani told DW, referring to a popular Pakistani prime minister who was hanged by military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in 1979.
Haqqani, who has authored a book on the history of US-Pakistan relations, recalled that in 1990, Nawaz Sharif did the same in his first term as prime minister and “Imran Khan is likely to be no different.”
He will tone down his anti-US rhetoric and seek Washington’s cooperation in both domestic and external issues, said Haqqani.
Haqqani, however, warned that this time, the Americans may not be as keen to oblige as they did in the past. “The level of American interest in and commitment to Pakistan has declined significantly from what it was in the past,” he said.
And the level of support from both external and internal players will determine how long an innings Imran Khan plays on this new pitch, if he is elected.