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Imran scores on foreign policy, but should mend ties with US

Shahab Jafry
Filed on February 12, 2020 | Last updated on February 12, 2020 at 07.04 pm

He's made quite an impression in the Muslim bloc; from friends in the Gulf and Iran to Turkey and Malaysia.

Everybody has been hounding Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's government to no end for mishandling the economy, distancing crucial political allies, and not really empathising with the plight of the common man - rightly so if you ask me - but nobody can deny his successes in foreign policy. He's made quite an impression in the Muslim bloc; from friends in the Gulf and Iran to Turkey and Malaysia, made that rock star speech at the United Nations and, most importantly, quite successively reset a badly disrupted relationship with Washington.

In some ways, though by no means completely, the Trump administration lobbying Congress for $3.5 million to resume the International Military Education and Training (IMET) facility for Pakistan is a result of his personal charm offensive. No doubt one of the biggest problems Imran inherited was a very angry Uncle Sam. Nobody, at least in Pakistan, has forgotten President Donald Trump's New Year tweet on January 1, 2018, accusing Pakistan of 'lies' and 'deceit' and announcing, no longer just threatening, a freeze on all aid to Pakistan.

Though we had seen similar lows in the relationship before, the thing about suspending all military training programmes as well came as something of a bolt from the blue. Later reports coming out of the US showed that even some senior Pentagon officials were surprised. Until Trump, the Americans kept military-to-military contact even through the most turbulent political storms; to keep channels open with central players in Pakistan's powerful establishment if nothing else.

That is why arrangements like IMET survived even the Pressler Amendment of the 80s and 90s, when Washington D.C. sanctioned Pakistan "to the eyeballs" for "going nuclear". Plus, such lines of communication could come in very handy if, say, you found yourself fighting a war on terror or something like that in Afghanistan or thereabout where the Pakistani military has significant influence.

But it's too nave to assume, of course, that Imran simply bowled Trump over with one of his inswingers. Everybody knows that the Americans are desperate to get out of Afghanistan and Trump, to his credit, seems to have stumbled upon a makes-sense approach that clearly eluded this two two-term predecessors. That, simply put, means using Pakistan's leverage with the Taleban, or whatever is left of it, instead of always asking it to 'do more' and threatening more and more sanctions.

So, ironic as it is, Pakistan must thank the Taleban's resilience perhaps even more than a pragmatic foreign policy outreach for this thaw. And, true to its word (for once?), Islamabad has helped bring an end to this long, ugly war finally within sight. Now all that matters is the pace and timing. If only Trump can get this in the bag before the election, he'd have enough political capital, at least by his own reckoning, to just waltz his way back to office for a second term.

Yet great as this news is for Pakistan, America, the Taleban, and the whole region, it's still too much to expect a smooth sailing beyond a certain point. Although IMET, a State Department initiative, covers the entire south and central Asian region, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal are classified as 'priority recipients'. But it's still important to read the fine print: the programme is meant to "support the Indo-Pacific strategy by focusing on professionalising the defence forces of regional partners."

Did you notice the bit about the 'Indo-Pacific strategy'? It stems from the pivot to Asia strategy outlined by the Obama administration, which more or less explained how, in the new century, America's main foreign policy thrust would be in the Asia-Pacific region, partnering with friends to contain China and preserve America's 'liberal hegemony'.

The best friend in this instance is India - hence 'Indo-Pacific strategy' - and one important thing to contain about China is BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) of which perhaps the most crucial part is CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor). Also, since Pakistan is now firmly in the Chinese camp, and things with India at the moment are not quite the best they've been, to put it mildly, you don't really need a crystal ball to be able to see just what kind of bottlenecks could come up not too far down the road.

Besides, there's hardly any point of convergence in Pakistani and American interests beyond Afghanistan and the Taleban. That's why Alice Wells, America's top diplomat for the region, was warning Pakistan about Chinese loans in CPEC projects just as she was delivering the good news about IMET recently.

Imran has played well on the foreign wicket so far. But it seems he should prepare to face the kind of bouncers and yorkers he used to bowl. It will clearly take an all-round performance, a captain's knock if you will, to keep winning these matches.

Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan


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