Less than a month after taking office, Pakistan’s new coalition government is already having to navigate a foreign policy quagmire. On the one hand, it would like to restore cordial ties with the United States and break from the anti-Americanism of the previous government, which was removed in a vote of no confidence on April 10. On the other, it can ill afford to be seen as cozying up to America, for fear of giving credence to claims by ousted premier Imran Khan that it was installed as part of a regime change operation concocted in Washington.
In the capital Islamabad, the popularity of Khan’s conspiracy theory has caught the new coalition by surprise. At the center of the row is a diplomatic cable sent on March 7 by Pakistan’s then ambassador to Washington, Asad Majeed Khan. The missive allegedly relays a U.S. State Department assessment that ties with Pakistan suffered a blow under the former prime minister. It has been seized on by his supporters as evidence of Washington’s ill intentions.
The furor over “cablegate,” as it is referred to in Pakistan, led newly elected Prime Minister Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif to convene a meeting of the National Security Committee on April 21, where the document was scrutinized at length. No evidence of a foreign conspiracy was found.
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This is not likely to deter Khan. Since being removed from office, he has embarked on a provocative speaking tour, addressing large crowds of diehard supporters, who have readily accepted his version of events and elevated him to the status of political martyr. The battle for public opinion has also consumed social media, where hashtags such as #ImportedHukoomatNaManzoor—imported government is unacceptable—have trended for several days. With a general election looming in 2023, it seems that the Khan-led Tehreek-e-Insaaf party has tapped into a reservoir of antipathy toward the United States, which is detested, among other things, for supporting the state of Israel and for coercing Pakistan into joining the War on Terror.
Blaming America is a political no-brainer for Khan, whose tough stance on U.S.-led drone strikes in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was widely admired. Now, ahead of a planned 2023 poll, he is again positioning himself as the anti-America candidate and capitalizing on the public’s mistrust of Washington to pressure the coalition government, which needs U.S. support to bail out the country’s cash-strapped economy.
Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan addresses Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party supporters during a rally in Lahore on April 21, 2022.
Arif ALI/ AFP via Getty Images
After talks in Washington, Pakistan’s newly appointed finance minister, Miftah Ismail, announced on April 24 that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had agreed to extend its loan program for another year as well as increase the size of the bailout from $6 billion to $8 billion. The announcement was met with scorn by many of Khan’s supporters, who accused the government of being American puppets. It is because of this pressure at home, where any cooperation with the West will be spun as evidence of foreign-funded skullduggery, that the coalition government is expected to place limits on American engagement.
Among the political and military elite, there is unease as to the direction in which the country’s foreign policy should pivot. The reputation of the U.S. as an unreliable ally has been amplified by the warming of relations between Washington and New Delhi—particularly in the spheres of intelligence sharing and defense cooperation.
The response advocated in some quarters has been for Pakistan to increase its engagement with the Kremlin, a strategy that led Khan to visit Moscow on the day that Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. That invasion, and the hostility with which it was received by the international community, has brought about something of a strategic rethink in Islamabad. That’s not only because Pakistan’s trade with the U.S. dwarfs its trade with Russia, but also because Pakistan’s economy is still reliant on institutions like the IMF, where Washington retains a large degree of influence.
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Another complicating factor is that the Pakistani government would like to revitalize the $46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. The CPEC deal was inked in 2015, when the present prime minister’s elder brother, Nawaz, was in office. The project was the then government’s flagship development before it was stalled by Khan for being too closely aligned with his political opponents.
But with Washington and Beijing in strategic conflict, and relations between the U.S. and Pakistan at a historic low, any renewed overtures to China over the CPEC will pose almost insurmountable diplomatic difficulties for the current administration. For these reasons, it may not pursue very much diplomacy at all. Elections are a little over a year away and Imran Khan is ready to pounce.