Scapegoat To Savior: Imran Khan's U-Turn Towards Washington

Scapegoat To Savior: Imran Khan's U-Turn Towards Washington
Calling upon your foreign friends to help you in the time of trouble is an age-old tradition for Pakistani political leaders. This activity has the potential to turn you into a clown, especially if only a year ago you were accusing the same friends to be the masterminds of your ouster from power. This is exactly the situation Imran Khan is facing.

A year ago, he was accusing the Biden Administration of bribing his opposition parties to table a no confidence motion against his government. Now, his party and his expatriate Pakistani supporters in Washington are lobbying US lawmakers to give him protection against the Pakistan military establishment’s high handedness. Some of his Pakistani expatriate friends have even approached the US State Department in this regard. Despite the fact that American officialdom has persistent doubts and reservations about Imran Khan’s credibility and their ability to influence Pakistan's internal political and security environment when Washington hardly provides any financial and military assistance to Islamabad now. Information and reports coming out from Washington suggest that US officialdom is taking keen interest in Pakistan’s dangerously precarious political situation. Americans believe that Imran Khan’s arrest on May 9, 2023 is linked with the meetings between top level Pakistani military officials and Chinese officials from their Defense and Foreign Ministries. Between May 6 and May 8, there have been three top level meetings between Chinese foreign ministry officials and top Pakistan military officials in Beijing and Islamabad. These meetings were completely unrelated to the domestic political situation in Pakistan.

It is axiomatically true that Chinese have never taken sides in political conflicts in Pakistani society. At least nothing of this sort has come to the surface in the country's history. In a crisis like situation that the country is facing - where the ruling coalition and the military leadership are facing a belligerent opposition in the shape of Imran Khan and possibility of default is still looming on the horizon - any offer of financial support from a friendly country could have emboldened Pakistan’s beleaguered regime. Especially when chances of the Sharif government striking a deal with the IMF are becoming dimmer with each passing day and frustration in the government’s ranks is becoming palpable if seen in the light of new subsidies the government is planning to introduce and a reduction in oil prices that the government has recently introduced.

The mood in Washington is taking shape with the massive amount of lobbying that PTI’s supporters among the Pakistani-American community have undertaken in recent months. The targets of this lobbying effort are US lawmakers and senior officials of the US State Department and Biden administration. It is unlikely that Imran Khan or PTI as a political party could attain a major spotlight in Washington, primarily because of their crooked behavior vis-à-vis Washington’s perceived role in recent political developments in the country. So far, the assertions of US lawmakers indicate a general interest towards developing the political situation in Pakistan, which, according to them, is heading towards large-scale political violence.

The assertions are dotted with US diplomatic cliches like an emphasis on the rule of law, political process and need for electoral politics. It is not surprising that PTI and Imran Khan have failed to attract the attention of US lawmakers and officials as only a few months back its leaders were advocating that Pakistan should side with Russia in the war against Ukraine and were mobilizing anti-American sentiments in Washington.

Nevertheless, any perceived Chinese role in political developments in Pakistan could possibly provoke US diplomatic interests and intervention in the situation. Two possible indications include the activist role former US diplomat Zalmy Khalilzad is playing in Washington with regards to Pakistan’s political situation. Secondly, there are a couple of dozen US lawmakers who are actively taking an interest in Pakistan’s political situation, which according to them is dangerously precarious. There are no signs that any quarter in the US officialdom has made any adverse comment against Pakistan in this regard. It appears that the US administration is overly restrained for two reasons. The US administration hardly enjoys any financial leverage against the Pakistani government at the moment, and Pak-US relations are already too cold for reasons which have nothing to do with the prevailing political situation in Pakistan. Any adverse comment on the political situation coming from Washington would further vitiate relations and could possibly divert US attention away from security concerns that are in American focus as far as Pakistan is concerned.

How far Washington would go in this regard will largely depend on Pakistan’s domestic political situation. PTI is raising hue and cry about the crackdown that is underway in Pakistan after attacks on military installations in several cities on May 9, 2023. There are strong lobbies in Washington which always push the US administration to intervene diplomatically if there is a state directed crackdown against civil society in any country. Besides, PTI supporters are actively pursuing US lawmakers and state department officials to intervene diplomatically. Any major US intervention in the Pakistan situation would likely engender political complications for Washington. The political conflict that the US administration is observing in Pakistan may appear to be a simple two-party conflict revolving around political matters.

On closer inspection, the US Administration will find out that different segments of the Pakistani state machinery – the military, intelligence services and judiciary - are deeply enmeshed in this conflict. Especially after PTI’s attacks on military installations there is no doubt who is whose favorite in the conflict. Any move on the part of any quarter of the US administration to openly voice support for Imran Khan or PTI would attract a reaction from known segments of the state machinery, which, clearly, are under no obligation to listen to what Washington has to say.

This situation could disturb US counterterrorism aims in the region. On the domestic front, the US could yet again face another wave of anti-American sloganeering, this time coming from PTI’s rival and the present ruling coalition, which mostly consists of right wing and ultra-right wing religious parties. Any open US support for Imran Khan could also provide an opportunity for former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif to jump into the fray by deciding to return to Pakistan from London. Nawaz Sharif is another claimant for middle class loyalties, which has historically been the politically dominant class in Pakistani society. What is stopping Nawaz Sharif from coming back to Pakistan is the absence of a hot slogan that could make his return a sizzling reality. American support for Imran Khan would provide him with the most appropriate slogan.

Nawaz Sharif is unlike an anti-American leader. But close to election time, anything that does the job will be acceptable to both the Pakistani state and populace. A sign of things to come was the high-profile meeting between Shahbaz Sharif and the Iranian President on Pak-Iran Border, where the two inaugurated a border market. Regional integration and interdependence are the future, and becoming a lapdog of world powers has gone out of fashion in any case.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.