Imran Khan’s foreign policy successes are dampened by domestic crises
While foreign policy may not have been top priority for Imran Khan, a myriad challenges for the new government on the external front have been no less important than domestic ones. Complex external circumstances surrounding the country demanded the prudent management of foreign relations, while fast-changing regional geopolitics had a direct bearing on the country’s national security and internal political stability.
PM Khan had pledged a near total focus on the domestic front and said he would not make any foreign visits for his first three months in power. But one year of the Khan government has been most eventful when it comes to Pakistan’s foreign relations. Notwithstanding serious economic and political problems at home, Khan has made a significant mark on the external front and improvement of relations with the US has been a major success for Khan’s government.
Turbulent relations between the two countries had almost come to breaking point. Once perceived to be a strategic alliance, the relationship has long been transformed into a transactional arrangement which too was not working with a widening trust gap between Washington and Islamabad.
In his first visit to Washington in July, Khan made a huge impact. It was a meeting between two unpredictable leaders and they developed good chemistry between them. Putting behind the bitterness of the Twitter war that the two had engaged in previously, President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Khan found some common ground to move forward on.
Last month’s summit talks in Washington have broken the ice, putting back on track a mainly transactional relationship between two erstwhile allies. It’s once again the lingering Afghan crisis that has brought them together. Predictably, talks at the White House revolved around Afghanistan and regional security. It’s an interesting development that the Trump administration now sees Pakistan more as part of the solution than the cause of the problem in Afghanistan.
Last month’s summit talks in Washington have broken the ice, putting back on track a mainly transactional relationship between two erstwhile allies.
There is, indeed, a convergence of interests, notwithstanding the huge trust deficit between the two countries. But the relationship still remains tenuous given an existing strategic divergence. One positive point was that there was no ‘do more’ mantra to Islamabad from Washington this time.
Trump’s positive remarks at the joint presser between the two leaders marked a welcome change from his earlier vitriolic statements that held Pakistan responsible for a worsening Afghan conflict. He now believes that Pakistan can save “millions of lives in Afghanistan” because “they have a power that other nations don’t have with respect to Afghanistan.” In other words, the Trump administration needs Pakistan’s support to extricate itself from a festering war that the US has never been able to win.
The resumption of bilateral talks has also reopened a window of opportunity for Islamabad and Kabul to build an atmosphere of mutual trust and put ties on a more stable footing — the lowering of hostile rhetoric, thus paving the way for a conducive environment in which rational discussions on critical issues affecting the two countries can be held.
But it is growing tensions with India that have been the thorniest issue for Khan’s government.
Khan earned plaudits internationally and at home for his statesman-like act that prevented a full-blown conflagration between the two countries in February this year, when India launched an airstrike inside Pakistan for the first time after 1972.
Pakistan responded to the Indian airstrike by shooting down two Indian Air Force jets thus challenging that country’s conventional military prowess, while upholding diplomacy in keeping hostilities below the nuclear threshold.
Now however, Khan faces perhaps an even more serious foreign policy challenge. India’s risky and reckless move to divide and annex Indian-held Kashmir carries catastrophic consequences. The change in Kashmir’s status has already sucked Islamabad into the crisis. Just as the military standoff triggered by the Indian incursion in February had begun to subside, the war clouds are back and the situation is extremely ominous. India’s move will go on to have global implications.
Surely, the Prime Minister has done well in removing a previously dominant perception that Pakistan was facing international isolation. But the gains on the external front, many as they may be, are diluted by an economic crisis and political instability at home.