Imran – Between Hardliners And A Hard Place

It used to be hockey once upon a time, it is now cricket. Winning a cricket match against India, after all the mutual war cries on the battlefield and cricket ground, has been the best thing to happen, in a long time, to Pakistan’s cricketing hero-turned-politician, Prime Minister Imran Khan.

A true Pathan, he may keep his handsome chin up. But he is currently besieged from all sides, and analysts at home and abroad have begun to say that he may not complete his term, now into its third year.

He has goofed his way through his first-ever stint in political power, changing ministers and special assistants to man his government with a record that can better that of Donald Trump. He gained office, albeit through an election, but essentially because the all-powerful army, decided to anoint him after being disillusioned with the two earlier options, the Pakistan Peoples’ party and the Pakistan Muslim League of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

He has angered his benefactors, first by messing up governance. At this time last year, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) of opposition parties was, for the first time, attacking the armed forces and even mentioning the top brass by name at protest rallies. The movement frittered away this year because of their own competing ambitions and mutual contradictions. The military mainly, but Imran, at least partially, must get credit for this.

But the movement is back, when the military sees him as ‘interfering’ in its working. He has shown preference for Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, the Director General, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is the most powerful wing of the powerful army. Hameed’s visiting Kabul, allegedly at Imran’s behest, and speaking to media, a tea mug in hand, has upset the Chief, Gen. Qaiser Javed Bajwa.

The talk in the Army GHQ, reports say, is that it is one thing to guide the whole strategy and operation that brought the Taliban back to power in Afghanistan, but it is quite another for the ISI chief, albeit a key man in it, to be seen as a peacemaker among the quarrelling Taliban helping them to form their interim government. Also, his alleged role in ensuring key posts in that government for the Haqqani family that runs a dreaded network of fighters that is proscribed by the United Nations, has upset the United States. Seething over the way it was made to evacuate from Afghanistan and looking for scapegoats, the US, holding all the aces at global financial bodies, could get bloody-minded and along with the Taliban, punish Pakistan as well.

ALSO READ: Pakistan-Taliban Ties Won’t Be Easy

Getting funds from friends has been iffy. Saudi Arabia, which took back two billion it loaned last year, has just agreed to $3billion. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) wants to impose severe preconditions that Islamabad is loath to accept because of their adverse impact on the domestic front, last week sent back Finance Minister Shaukat Tareen without a pact.

Bajwa transferred Hameed out of the ISI, and had an official announcement made. After a huge public debate for three weeks, Imran has surrendered in this turf war with the army. The tussle shows him up as less trust-worthy by the men in khaki, also vulnerable to his political opponents, ready to pounce upon him. The PDM has revived, this time to protest rising prices of essential commodities.

Like the opposition parties, Imran has a tough time dealing with the Islamists. Some of them have joined the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP)’s “Long March” from Lahore to Islamabad. In a way, Imran is getting the dose of the same medicine he served his predecessor Nawaz Sharif, laying a siege that lasted several weeks and was called off, again, on a telephone call from the Army GHQs.

The TLP’s demands make scary reading for Imran and his government. Besides release of its chief who has been in and out of jail, it wants the government to expel the French envoy in Islamabad because of France’s action against its radical Muslims. The diplomatic fallout of any such action could impact Pakistan’s relations, with not just France, but the entire Western world that is fearful of rising militancy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.  

As the long marchers broke through security cordons last week, the government did the only thing it has been used to – talk with an organization it has banned, and release hundreds of marchers and their key leaders. It is readying to talk also to its own Taliban of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Although many Muslims across the globe are upset with what they perceive as Islamophobia of the West, only in Pakistan, perhaps, thousands take to the streets on this issue and some even die of police bullets.

To return to the Afghanistan developments, they give Pakistan a distinct geo-political advantage over all other stake holders. But Imran cannot rejoice at this victory that is so far proving to be Pyrrhic. The Islamists at home have become bolder and the TLP march is just one indicator. The Taliban rule has resolved nothing in Pakistan’s relations with Kabul, nor within Afghanistan. This has meant more refugees crossing over the Khyber Pass. Pakistan already hosts half-a-million, some for the last four decades. The socio-economic impact of all this is negative.

ALSO READ: Taliban’s Victory Puts Pakistan In A Spot

The US wants to retain more than just a foot-hold in the region and is pressuring Islamabad to allow air operations facilities. Imran Khan has vociferously refused it, but may have to yield, angering the Taliban in Kabul who have warned of ‘consequences’. These are difficult choices and Imran Khan is no Churchill or De Gaulle.

Lastly, the India factor. In the last two decades, despite frequent upheavals, successive governments on both sides have brought phases of understanding and relative peace. But Narendra Modi believes in giving-it-back. He did pay a surprise visit to Lahore to attend a wedding in Nawaz Sharif’s family. But he has simply ignored Imran Khan, when not calling him “Mr Niazi”, an allusion to the general who surrendered to the Indian forces in Dhaka 50 years ago. Pakistan under Imran has become part of his party’s electoral arithmetic.

Khan has lost both ways. He wished for Modi’s success in the 2019 Indian elections, and when that happened, he has been attacking Modi and his government of ‘fascism’ and what not. His anti-India pitch has not worked even after Modi Government’s most provocative action against Pakistan, of dissolving the very entity of the disputed State of Jammu and Kashmir.

Facing all these woes, at home, abroad and with India, Imran Khan and his “men in green” deserve winning the cricket match.

The writer can be reached at

Difficult For Pak To Sell Anti-India Narrative To Biden

The main focus of Pakistan as US President-elect Joe Biden gears up to take over in January 2021 does not appear to be a comprehensive reset of relations after the trauma of the President Donald Trump’s years but how to ensure that Indo-US relations do not continue to deepen.

For this, Pakistan will try and build on Biden’s regular visits to Pakistan since the 1990s, his old connections with and knowledge of Pakistan as also his experience as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and of Barack Obama’s White House. Biden, after all, was the original architect of the Kerry-Lugar bill and the policy of engagement with the civil government to support a sustainable long-term relationship with Pakistan.

The key strand in its strategy is to stress the necessity of Indo-Pakistan equivalence and the need for the US to adopt a balanced and equitable approach towards both countries. While Pakistan’s quest for parity with India is as old as a partition of the sub-continent, most recently in an interview with Der Spiegel, Imran Khan had reiterated that Pakistan expected even-handed treatment from the US with respect to India.

Another key component, signalling its own insecurities, is to warn Biden about India. Thus, Imran Khan in his interview said: ‘The US thinks India will contain China, which is a completely flawed premise. India is a threat to its neighbours, to China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and to us.’ Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN Munir Akram in an interview called the US-India strategic partnership a “wrong choice,” and advised that improving ties with Pakistan could prove extremely beneficial for the incoming administration.

An adjunct to this theme is to try and chip away at a central pillar of Indo-US relationship – shared democratic values– by stressing that such values were fast dissipating in India; that India was becoming exclusivist, violating democracy and human rights and finally, the Imran Khan rant of India becoming an extremist and fascist country under the BJP government.

The greatest expectation, of course, is on Kashmir–that Biden will robustly support ‘American’ values that means a greater emphasis on democracy, human rights and freedom of expression all around the world. Translated into action Pakistan is hoping that this would mean that Biden as president would strongly address the issue of the removal of the special status of the J&K, factor in adherence to human rights and castigate India for the alleged repression there.

Much has also been made of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s statement in October 2019 that: ‘We have to remind Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping track of the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.’ Pakistan hopes that this would be translated into political action.

Another thread of concern is Washington’s China policy. Pakistan is hoping that under Biden the US would find a way of competing with China without conflict. This could ensure Pakistan not becoming totally dependent on China and the US still finding some use for it.

Pakistan is concerned that if Biden goes the Trump way in dealing with China, it would have an adverse impact on it, on its need for international financial institutions like the IMF, on trying to extricate itself from the ‘grey list’ of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and especially on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Of concern to Pakistan are the views of Kamala Harris on the human rights violations of the Uighurs. In an interview, she had said: ‘China’s abysmal human rights record must feature prominently in our policy toward the country. We can’t ignore China’s mass detention of more than a million Uighur Muslims in “re-education camps” in the Xinjiang region, or its widespread abuse of surveillance for political and religious repression.’ Were the Biden administration to make this an important element in its China policy, Imran Khan would no longer be able to feign ignorance about the Uighur problem as he has done in the past.

Pakistan would also be looking closely at the Afghanistan policy of Biden. It would look to capitalise on what then-Vice President Joe Biden had told Afghan President Karzai in 2008 that Pakistan was 50 times more important than Afghanistan for the US. However, the Biden administration is bound to look at the US-Taliban agreement of February 2020 and especially credible reports of the Taliban continuing to maintain ties with Al Qaeda, the unacceptable levels of violence and the stalled intra-Afghan dialogue. This will entail increased pressure on Pakistan to deliver on its promises.

Well aware that the new administration will be absorbed in internal issues, at least in the short term, Pakistan has devised its own strategy to get it to focus on the subcontinent. This includes, for the moment, activating the LoC with caliber-escalation firepower and producing a dossier accusing India of fomenting terrorism in Pakistan. Both are geared to put out the message that the region is a nuclear flashpoint that the incoming administration should not ignore.

However, the reality check for Pakistan is that Indo-US relations are deep and broad-based, something that was underlined by the recent signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). What Pakistan would find uncomfortable is that in 2008, Biden garnered the support of other Democrats to back the India-US civil nuclear deal. Moreover, in an interview in 2006 as a Senator, Biden had stated: ‘My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States. If that occurs, the world will be safer.’ He now has the opportunity to translate his dream into reality.

A policy paper released during the presidential campaign noted that the Biden administration would place a high priority on strengthening the Indo-US relationship by pushing India to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, continuing co-operation on terrorism, climate change, health and trade, working towards a multi-fold increase in bilateral trade. The paper recalled the lead role played by Biden, both as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Vice President in the Obama administration, in systematically deepening strategic engagement, people-to-people ties, and collaboration with India on global challenges.

Ultimately, Pakistan would have to accept that the Pak-US relations have been and are likely to remain transactional due to lack of substantive content. The US will remain engaged on issues like the safety of Pak nuclear weapons and terrorism but Afghanistan apart, there is very little that Pakistan has to offer positively to interest the US.

Compounding the problem is the fact that Imran Khan had criticized the award given by the then PPP government to Biden in 2009 for his role in pressuring President Musharraf to give up power and return Pakistan to democracy.

Pakistan will also have a hard time selling an anti-India narrative simply because of its own track record whether about ‘missing persons’, the ‘kill and dump’ policy in Balochistan, the daylight murders of Ahmadis and those perceived to have indulged in blasphemy, the rampant abduction and forced conversion of minor Hindu, Christian and Sikh girls as also the appalling persecution of the media under Imran Khan. Its charges against India on terrorism would be dismissed out of hand like similar dossiers were dismissed in 2015.

The Biden presidency is also likely to see the return of the traditional and mainstream foreign policy establishment with area specialists providing crucial policy inputs, something absent under President Trump. They will be aware of Pakistan’s past duplicity of supporting the Taliban while pretending to be a US ally against terrorism. This will not bode well for Pakistan.

Hence, despite all its efforts, it is unlikely that Pakistan would be able to succeed in trying to prevent the further strengthening of the Indo-US relationship under Biden. At best, Pakistan could look to nudge the US to restore the policy of aid that had taken a hit under the Trump presidency and hope that the deepening New Delhi-Washington relationship would not further enhance the disparity with India.

(The author is a Member of the National Security Advisory Board. Views are personal – ANI)