It did not take long for the first set of foreign policy problems to show up at the door of Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan. But the new PM’s most difficult test comes this week, when he sits down with the visiting US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. Over the last many decades, relations between the US and Pakistan have seen many ups and downs. Pakistan has often been America’s most allied of the allies. It has also been one of the most sanctioned countries by Washington.
New sanctions announced by Washington, on the eve of Pompeo’s visit to Pakistan, and the threat of imposing more punishment have certainly soured the atmospherics in Pakistan. But they may also have set the stage for a back-to-basics discussion between Pakistan and the US on the political future of Afghanistan and the sources of international terror on Pakistan’s soil.
But first to Imran’s broader diplomatic challenges. It is one thing to devise ambitious foreign policy slogans — like “Putting Pakistan First” — before you come into office. It is entirely another to manage the complex relationships with other sovereign international actors, especially the major powers. Even more demanding is the task of keeping key constituents at home — the army and the Islamists in Pakistan — on your side on major foreign policy issues.
Above all, diplomacy demands considerable discipline in its messaging to internal and external audiences and keeping it in sync with the pursuit of long-term national interests. On all these fronts, Khan and his team seemed to stumble a bit in their first weeks in office.
After Pompeo called to congratulate Khan, his team got into an avoidable controversy over what was discussed. In a summary of the conversation read out to reporters in Washington, the US State Department highlighted Pompeo’s expectations, conveyed to PM Khan, on Pakistan doing more to counter terrorism in Afghanistan.
In a haughty response, Islamabad denied that there was any discussion on terrorism. After a couple of rounds of affirmation and denial in Washington and Islamabad, the state department chose to send the full transcript of the conversation to Pakistan with the implicit suggestion that it could be made public. And Pakistan chose to step back.
South Asian leaders have a long tradition of posturing to the domestic audiences when it comes to relations with the US. Professional diplomats in the US tend to be understanding and indulgent. But the current political mood is quite different in Washington — where there is little patience with foreign interlocutors even when it comes to the closest of allies like Canada, Britain or Japan.
Khan’s posturing was also evident in his reported decision to not take a call from the French President Emmanuel Macron when he was apparently chatting with a group of journalists. The temptation to sound tough to domestic audiences, Khan will soon discover, can’t be allowed to come in the way of normal protocol and diplomatic process.
Events in far corners of the world occasionally produce powerful political storms at home. Consider the unfortunate decision of a right-wing politician and Islamophobe in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, to call for a cartoon contest on Prophet Mohammed. As the news hit Pakistan, the new religious party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), began to mobilise a massive march on to Islamabad with the demand that Pakistan snaps ties with the Netherlands.
The main agenda of the TLP, which outperformed all other Islamist parties in the recent elections, is to fight blasphemy. Protests last year by the TLP had brought Islamabad to a standstill. The cancellation of the contest by Wilders helped Islamabad get out of the tight political corner it was being squeezed into.
Khan’s initial foray into Pakistan’s all-important neighbourhood to the West — the Gulf — has not been too impressive. Pakistan’s effusive endorsement of Iran’s position on the nuclear deal, when it hosted the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif in Islamabad last week, has not gone down too well in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. While Iran is an important immediate neighbour, it is Abu Dhabi and Riyadh that have always bailed out Pakistan with generous financial support as well as much needed oil supplies.
It is common for new governments to take their time to find their feet on diplomacy. None of the initial stumbles on the part of Khan’s team is really debilitating. But the Pakistani PM does not have too much time to cope with the biggest foreign policy test — of arresting the slide in the relations with the US. During his campaign and since he won the elections, Khan has insisted that he would like to conduct relations with the US on the basis of equality and mutual respect.
In addition, there is the brave talk that Islamabad no longer needs Washington and that the alliance with Beijing will be enough to address Pakistan’s internal and external challenges. Whatever might be the civilian rhetoric, the army leadership in Rawalpindi is quite conscious that making America an enemy and putting all the eggs in the China basket is not a smart strategy.
Quite often, when it seemed that US-Pakistan relations were in terminal decline, the two sides managed to find new imperatives for rebuilding the relationship. Can Imran Khan’s Pakistan do so again under the current adverse circumstances, and construct a fresh bargain with America on Afghanistan and regional terrorism?