Millennium Post

Imran Khan's tryst with Afghanistan

Khan’s ability to steer foreign policy will depend on his relations with Pak army

Incorrigible optimists in Pakistan, albeit very few in numbers, are disappointed with the US decision to suspend military and educational training of 66 Pakistani officers under the International Military Education and Training programme, thanks to the obstinacy of President Donald Trump. This is the first awkward bouncer to new Prime Minister Imran Ahmad Khan Niazi in the foreign policy arena as if reminding that his glorious cricketing career is irrelevant. But the sanguinary reality that the pitch for the new innings for the PM was queered by the blackened history scripted jointly by the US and Pakistan during the era of President Jimmy Carter and Pakistan's most hated dictator President Zia-ul Haq, when they successfully plotted the infiltration of Taliban into Afghanistan six months before the 'invasion' of Soviet army.

However, the Trump decision on IMET has been criticised by former US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Dan Feldman as "very short-sighted and myopic". Furthermore, he feels that it will cast "lasting negative impacts limiting the bilateral relationship well into the future". But this was not unusual for the US President, who in his first tweet on Pakistan in 2018 nailed his predecessors for "foolishly" giving Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and the country had rewarded the past US aid with "nothing but lies and deceit." This was expected from one who threatened to cut off foreign aid to Pakistan for harbouring extremists although the policy of pressing Taliban into the anti-Soviet belligerence was conceived by President Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Nevertheless, hadn't even the decision to suspend participation of 66 Pak military officers under the IMET program been taken, the possibility of a positive change in Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship remained remote simply for one reason. The Pak premier is absolutely dependent on variable functionally dictated by 'miltablishment' more so as the overwhelming majority of Pak intelligentsia that yearns for a libertarian state is of the view that Imran Khan is very trustworthy to the Pak army brass. Moeed Yusuf, Vice President of the Asia Centre at the U.S. Institute of Peace, stated ingenuously before the Pak national elections, "Khan's ability to steer foreign policy will depend on his relations with Pakistan's powerful army, which has historically set Islamabad's course on international affairs. Khan and his Tehreek-e-Insaf party take power amid a complex international environment, as momentum grows in the Afghan peace process and Pakistan's burgeoning relationship with China will be challenged by a looming debt crisis fueled, in part, by Chinese loans.

Moeed Yusuf examines what impact Khan could have on Pakistani's foreign policy and relationships with regional players and international powers. On the chances of Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship and Islamabad's role in the Afghan peace process, he stated elaborately that "I do not think that Pakistan's Afghanistan policy will change much under Imran Khan and his PTI party. That said, things may improve between Pakistan and Afghanistan because of the recent efforts to initiate a peace process involving the Afghan Taliban. A peace process can create a natural convergence of interests between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think there is certainly an opportunity for a fresh start. Already, efforts have been made to improve the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship and things seem to be getting better. Khan will have to work very closely with the Pakistan army that leads Afghanistan policy to ensure that the 'state' of Pakistan can speak coherently and offer opportunities to improve relations with Afghanistan. Realistically, he'll have to play second fiddle to the army on this. On the Afghan side too, a more conducive environment needs to be created for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to continue working on improving ties without facing political backlash".

There are compulsions for Khan with many dilemmas. For one whose political rise was fostered by his love affair with Taliban, there are several foreign-policy imperatives as he has to at least outwardly create an impression that he will not be a complete puppet to miltablishment although the latter will continue to be more 'active' on its borders. PTI's commitment to 'Naya Pakistan' will face speed-breakers one after another.

President Ghani, in contrast to Khan, is openly pro-US. So the Afghan head of state is expected to closely study the Pak premier's steps closely, keenly, and vividly. But Khan has an advantage internally as the Pashtuns are at a cross with Ghani as a puppet of Trump. "Imran's agenda will be to boost his own popularity in Afghanistan, at the cost of decreasing the value of Ghani's image. He will do that by advertising his sympathy towards the people in the border areas who are still suffering due to war", suggests an Indian management expert Prithwi Tilak Banerjee, who worked nearly for a decade in Afghanistan. He too thinks there will not be any massive change in the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, although Khan is on record that he looks forward to a stable Afghanistan in the interests of Pakistan. But Ghani is not keen on friendship with Pakistan and instead wants to build stronger bridges with India. The Afghan President is "scared that Imran will want to dominate Afghanistan again by playing the victim card to arouse Pashtun suffering and in doing so, provoke rebellion ultimately to aid, help, and re-build Taliban".

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

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