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Prime Minister Imran Khan Will Be Confronted By Daunting Challenges

By Mosharraf Zaidi

Aug. 17, 2018 

 When Imran Khan is sworn in as the prime minister of Pakistan on Saturday, he will be confronted by daunting challenges.

The country has a balance-of-payments crisis. The judiciary is in a hyper activist mood. The effects of climate change are being keenly felt, with a major water-supply crisis. Hard-won gains against a decade-long terrorist campaign have to be consolidated.

Many Pakistanis, including senior military officials, blame an incompetent and venal political class for Pakistan’s chronic problems, from economic vulnerabilities to anxieties about security. They have been yearning for a messiah-like figure who can turn Pakistan into a financially autonomous and militarily robust nation that is respected globally. They see Mr. Khan as that man of destiny.

In his victory speech, Mr. Khan offered a glimpse of how he will rule. Having built his politics on an anti-corruption platform, he expressed hope that a transparent and accountable leader will increase global confidence in Pakistan. He intends to bank heavily on the Pakistani diaspora, which is already a major source of remittances.

Crucially, Mr. Khan, who is seen to have come to power with the military’s support, bucked expectations by taking a conciliatory tone on global and regional policy. He spoke about working on the relationship with the United States, pursuing dialogue with India and helping usher in peace in Afghanistan.

Mr. Khan takes great pride in his Pashtun ethnic identity. His family traces its roots to Waziristan, on the troubled border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. His view of the conflict in Afghanistan has been coloured by a sense that the mostly Pashtun Taliban have waged a war of resistance against outsider rulers. It informed perceptions among liberals in Pakistan and the West, and some critics unfairly took to calling him “Taliban Khan.”

He will argue for a peace process and a settlement in Afghanistan, which include the Afghan Taliban. The stars favour his position as both President Trump and President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan seem to have come around to the same position and support direct talks with the Taliban.

The challenge for Pakistan’s new prime minister will be to manage expectations in the three countries. Pakistan may not have the clout to get the Taliban to the negotiating table, despite the United States seeing them as Pakistani proxies.

Mr. Khan has said that a peaceful Pakistan needs a peaceful Afghanistan. Unlike previous Pakistani leaders, he is personally invested in better relations with Afghanistan — something that may have spurred Mr. Ghani’s quick congratulatory phone call.

Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or Movement for Justice, came to power nationally off the back of its success in the frontier province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, bordering Afghanistan. It is the province that suffered the most in the insurgency and counterinsurgency in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and the United States invasion of Afghanistan. Mr. Khan’s rivals in the province — the religious right and the secular nationalist Pashtuns — will tear into him for failure in Afghanistan.

He will also have to delicately manage relations with India. Pakistan’s military believes that India has been covertly fanning the flames of the multiple insurgencies it has had to put down. Indian officials scoff at the allegations, but have never refuted the evidence put to them. The resulting distrust makes not only peace in Afghanistan more complex, it adds another hostile dimension to the already fraught Pakistan-India relationship.

The original sin in South Asia remains the simmering conflict over Kashmir. Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistan army chief, has privately signalled that he wants to improve relations with India, and many credit him for the lull in relentless firing by Pakistani and Indian armies across the Line of Control, the disputed border dividing the region into Indian-controlled Kashmir and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

The back-channel negotiations between Pakistan and India that Gen. Bajwa is reported to have supported may signal a rare new opening for the countries. If Mr. Khan and the powerful military are indeed on the same page as far as India is concerned, Pakistan may finally be freed of the omnipresent civil-military divide that has wreaked havoc on the hopes of previous elected governments.

Mr. Khan also wants to improve Pakistan’s relationship with the United States. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have been frustrated by Pakistan’s refusal to bow to American demands on Afghanistan and alter Islamabad’s strategic calculus to Washington’s satisfaction.

Resentful of this pressure, the military now sees itself as a bulwark against attempts to reduce Pakistan to an American colony. Mr. Khan’s nationalistic broadsides against American policies and what he describes as a humiliatingly uneven relationship chime with the military’s position. And this would be Mr. Khan’s most difficult test.

Faced with dwindling foreign exchange reserves, Pakistan desperately needs $10 billion to save its economy. It is most likely to turn to the International Monetary Fund — where United States influence is crucial. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already ruled out American support for any loan that indirectly bails out the overexposure of Chinese investments and loans in Pakistan.

This is where Mr. Khan’s ambitions meet reality. The austerity measures of an I.M.F. program are the last thing he needs in his efforts to deliver on the ambitious agenda that he has been elected to deliver. Pakistan’s youth bulge needs a government capable of constantly escalating public spending, not one that wears a straitjacket tailored by Pakistani officials and I.M.F. accountants.

And the United States and Pakistan remain at odds over how the Pakistani state deals with militants. Pakistan was recently placed back on the gray list of the Financial Action Task Force for failing to shut down United Nations-sanctioned terrorist individuals and groups. One of these groups contested the recent elections as a political party, signalling the Pakistani establishment’s intent to secure a place for it in the country’s political mainstream.

As someone who has never held executive office before, Mr. Khan will quickly realize that electoral promises of quick fixes and transparent government aren’t easy to realize in the face of bureaucratic inertia and shrinking fiscal space. The civilian machinery won’t be able to keep pace with his soaring ambitions.

But the Pakistan military suffers no such constraints. If Mr. Khan can make the military a partner and enabler of his foreign policy ambitions — including a “mutually beneficial” relationship with the United States, “open borders” with Afghanistan and peaceful trade with India — he will pull off a feat no Pakistani leader, civilian or military, has ever managed. If he does, it will help establish an unprecedented regional peace and stability. That would be an outcome that Americans, Afghans and Pakistanis can all root for together.

Mosharraf Zaidi is a political analyst based in Islamabad, Pakistan