By Michael Kugelman
Pakistan’s new government, which takes office on Aug. 18, will confront a raft of pressing challenges at home. They include a looming economic crisis; an unhappy political opposition, led by the previously ruling PMLN party, which could seek to obstruct the government’s legislative measures; and the omnipresent threat of extremism.
Foreign policy won’t be the initial focus of presumptive Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration in Islamabad. Still, Khan faces five major foreign policy tests requiring immediate attention. How he responds to them will offer an early read on his government’s thinking on foreign policy. His actions will also help determine the extent to which the Pakistani military, which has long held a veto on foreign policy, may try to shape the agenda of the centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, now in power. Finally, Khan’s early moves on foreign policy will help determine the trajectory of the broader civil-military relationship in Pakistan.
The first challenge is working with the United States. Islamabad’s relationship with Washington has struggled so far under the Trump administration, which suspended security assistance earlier this year. Ties could worsen under Khan, who has long denounced U.S. policy in Pakistan in the strongest terms. However, Pakistan’s army, which values the long history of U.S. military aid, and particularly the advanced equipment that it can’t get from China or other close defense partners, is keen to maintain a workable relationship with Washington.
Khan will need to decide whether he softens his stance toward America, which may disappoint his conservative base but would ease the concerns of the military, or if he risks tensions with the military by maintaining his hard-line position. There are some indications that Khan is willing to relent. He has said, for example, that he would be willing to meet with Trump, even though this would be a “bitter pill” to swallow. He may be pressed to do more than that by generals who want to reverse worsening tensions with Washington. Just last week, Reuters reported that the Trump administration was rolling back U.S. military training programs for Pakistani officers, which “have been a hallmark of bilateral military relations for more than a decade.”
The second issue is contributing to long-troubled peace talks with the Taliban. Pakistan’s relationship with India, despite some conciliatory language from Khan in recent days, is likely to remain in a stalemate—owing in part to a lack of interest in dialogue from the Indian government and the Pakistani military. Developments with Pakistan’s western neighbor, however, present opportunities for Khan. Afghanistan and Pakistan have eased some of their tensions in recent months, with both sides pledging to promote more cooperation in order to better manage their volatile shared border. And now Kabul is fully behind the idea of launching a peace process with the Taliban, which Islamabad, at least publicly, has repeatedly endorsed.
Khan, at first blush, would boast many advantages as an interlocutor in any talks with the Taliban. He has long supported negotiations with Taliban militants, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he once praised the Taliban’s fight in Afghanistan as a “holy war” justified by Islamic law. Such sentiments should give him a level of legitimacy within the Taliban ranks, suggesting that Khan’s government could help Kabul, and Washington, navigate a difficult peace process.
Yet Khan will need to manage numerous challenges here. First, Kabul has now approved of Washington negotiating directly with the Taliban. This means neither Kabul nor Washington—nor possibly even the Taliban—will want Islamabad getting involved. Additionally, it’s unclear if Pakistan’s army will give Khan, or any civilian leader, the space to engage in a reconciliation process. Most importantly, if Pakistan’s army concludes that its core interests in Afghanistan, which include an in-country environment inhospitable for India, are better served by unending war, then any outreach by Khan could well be reined in.
Khan’s early moves on foreign policy will help determine the trajectory of the broader civil-military relationship in Pakistan.
Managing the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry is the third item on Khan’s foreign policy agenda, and perhaps the most complex, since he must avoid getting entangled in an increasingly fraught rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. The task is particularly difficult given Pakistan’s geography, partnerships and demographics. It shares a border with Iran, but Saudi Arabia is one of Pakistan’s closest allies, and Shiites make up about 20 percent of the Pakistani population.
Compounding the challenge for Khan is his own apparent sympathies for Iran. Few if any Pakistani leaders in recent memory have resorted to messaging as overtly pro-Iran as Khan. He has praised the Iran nuclear deal, defended Tehran when Trump made an anti-Iran speech in Riyadh last year, and even claimed that Iran is an “independent nation and we should become like them.” In all likelihood, Khan has no desire to align Pakistan with Iran; his goal is to better position Pakistan as a neutral player in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, which means more expressions of support for both countries. Still, if Khan expresses a desire to deepen Pakistan’s ties to Iran beyond border cooperation, trade and energy relations—traditional safe spaces for Pakistan-Iran cooperation—then he could start feeling the pressure from high places.
The fourth challenge abroad is finding new friends. Pakistan confronts two unfriendly neighbors in India and Afghanistan, and it faces an uncertain future in its partnership with America. In effect, Pakistan needs new allies, which may help explain why recent months have brought efforts by Islamabad to cultivate deeper ties with key regional actors like Russia and Turkey, as well as smaller neighbors like Sri Lanka. For Pakistan, deepening its network of friends and allies beyond tried-and-true partners China and Saudi Arabia makes sense, but developing these relationships requires patient and skillful diplomacy. Khan, who has no foreign policy experience, will need to defer his authority—something he is not always known for doing—to senior PTI leaders who do boast international diplomatic experience. One such leader is Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who was foreign minister between 2008 and 2011.
If done the right way, Khan can leverage Pakistan’s presence in regional cooperative mechanisms—from the China-Pakistan Economic Partnership, which has attracted the verbal support of Russia, Turkey and Iran, to the Shanghai Cooperation Group, a regional organization of Central and South Asian states that Pakistan joined in 2015—to deepen relationships in the broader neighborhood. For Islamabad, an added benefit of intensifying diplomacy with gas-rich Central Asian states is that it could result in new energy deals for power-hungry Pakistan.
Finally, Khan must try and improve Pakistan’s global image. He has an opportunity to leverage his celebrity status from his days as an international cricket star and project himself overseas as a new type of Pakistani leader—a bold and incorruptible reformer with no ties to the venal political class and its family dynasties. Whether his critics agree with that image is another matter entirely.
However, for many observers of Pakistan, the key to improving the country’s image lies less in trotting out more palatable leaders, and more in changing the policies that have contributed to Pakistan’s troubled image from the start. This entails, among other things, cracking down on all forms of terrorism on its soil. These are not steps Khan is likely to take or that the military would permit him to take. So, no matter how many charm offensives he may launch abroad, Khan will face an uphill battle getting the world to buy into a Pakistani image makeover.
Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.