A whiff of fresh air, Imran Khan's victory could lead to peace in South Asia
The electoral victory of Pakistan Tehreek-I-Insaf (PTI), led by cricketing hero Imran Khan, was largely viewed positively by the Pakistani people, who were yearning for a change. The stock market jumped as investor confidence got a boost and the first positive vibe to come from abroad was from Washington.
”As Pakistan’s elected leaders form a new government, the United States will look for opportunities to work with them to advance our goals of security , stability and prosperity in South Asia,” a US State Department spokesperson said. This statement is significant as bilateral relations are in the repair stage after touching a rare low at the beginning of this year.
This statement will be important to the new leadership in Islamabad for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it will lift the general mood and enhance confidence abroad about doing business with the new Pakistani government. It will also deny space to the countries which, out of their wishful thinking, want to see Pakistan isolated.
Considering Pakistan’s strategic location, some important regional nations, including Russia and Iran, had started engaging Islamabad and began filling the vacuum created by Washington in the recent past, through its changed policy in South Asia. The United States appears to have realized that a one-sided policy in South Asia could be counterproductive.
There is little doubt that the Pakistan economy is in dire straits. While the growth rate is satisfactory, the balance of payments position leaves much to be desired. The government may have to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout package. US clout in that body and other Bretton Wood institutions is well-known. While major economic reforms will take time, what is immediately required by Pakistan is balance of payment support without stringent conditions. Strict conditions that often form part of IMF packages tend to put breaks on economic growth. But what would be the quid pro quo for pleading Pakistan’s case at the IMF?
Normalisation with India and peaceful Afghanistan could unleash vast potential that Pakistan has for north-south and east-west connectivity.
Pakistan can play a role in a negotiated settlement of the Afghan imbroglio. An old demand of the Afghan Taliban was lately met by the US when it expressed its readiness to talk to them directly. This had been a sticking point because the Taliban thought talking to the government in Kabul would not be fruitful as it wielded little authority over developments in the country. Any peace settlement in Afghanistan has to be underwritten by the US, Afghanistan’s neighboring nations and important regional countries. Of all its geographical neighbours, Pakistan has the longest border, which is being fortified right now. But Imran Khan, in his victory speech, has expressed the possibility of a free flow of goods and persons between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
After Washington, DC, Beijing has also officially declared that it looks forward to working with the new leadership in Pakistan. The US statement talks of “Security, stability and prosperity in South Asia.” In his victory speech, Imran Khan said he wanted settlement of all outstanding issues with India, including Kashmir. He added that if India took one step forward for normalization with Pakistan, his government would reciprocate the Indian move with two steps.
He also spoke of better trade relations between the two countries. Normalisation with India and peaceful Afghanistan could unleash vast potential that Pakistan has for north-south and east-west connectivity. As Pakistan provides space to criss-crossing energy and international trade routes, its own economy will benefit tremendously.
Trade brings its own peace dividend in addition to pecuniary benefits and creation of jobs. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have been hit by terrorism. Afghanistan, with a tentative governmental control over its territory, is offering space to Daesh, by default. This development is worrisome to most regional countries.
Economic development also leads to national integration and better governance. Job creation, better governance and the rule of law produce more inclusive and peaceful societies. This is what the international community wants to see in South Asia, a region with a lot of poverty because of unresolved conflicts.
Will the new leadership in Pakistan be able to normalize relations with India unilaterally? That is difficult for two reasons. No self-respecting nation could forsake its legitimate demands to appease a hegemonic neighbor. And for any durable normalization with India, the new leadership in Islamabad will have to take the security establishment on board.
As far as Afghanistan is concerned, Pakistan may have some influence with the Afghan Taliban but it is not unlimited. Therefore, the US will have to nudge India as well for normalization in South Asia. The new confidence-building process between Kabul and Islamabad is on track. A fatigued international community wants peace in Afghanistan. Peace in South Asia may be a Herculean task, but it is worth the effort. A new Pakistan is yearning for peace with dignity.
– Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst. Twitter: @hafiz_javed