It has been 17 months since Imran Khan took the reins as prime minister of Pakistan, vowing to rid the country of the curse of corruption and reform the way its government functions. Since then, the international community has not seen that much of him.
When Khan has participated in multilateral events, such as at the UN General Assembly in September, he has tended to share the limelight with leaders of more powerful states. The counter-Islamophobia initiative Khan co-launched with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed was a case in point. But Khan’s subsequent U-turn, performed under Saudi pressure, suggested he was still coming to grips with the diplomatic side of his job.
These glimpses have not provided the wider international community with a fair opportunity to assess Khan’s administration and where it stands. That finally came at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and it was admirably choreographed.
It started with a short but nonetheless spotlight-stealing exchange of soundbites with US President Donald Trump. Mindful of each other’s priorities, Trump reiterated his willingness to resolve tensions between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, and Khan spoke about the growing hopes for a peace deal between the US and Taliban in Afghanistan.
Trump described Khan as his “very good friend” and said relations between Washington and Islamabad are their best ever.
This confirmed that Khan, at the very least, has built a personal rapport with the mercurial American commander-in-chief. However, it’s one thing to shine when the cameras are rolling for a matter of seconds, and quite another to effectively state Pakistan’s case to some of the world’s most influential political and business leaders.
His address to the WEF Forum and interviews with three influential media platforms showed that Khan is not a studious prime minister, nor one who likes to read from a script. Instead, he tends to stick to a couple of bullet points and then delves into anecdotes. This makes him likeable to layperson audiences.
Khan’s references to the peace process in Afghanistan, wherein Pakistan is playing a pivotal role in facilitating peace talks between the US and Taliban, demonstrated this. He said his government is doing its best to help them reach a successful conclusion, but then launched into a conversation about how Pakistan made a mistake by becoming a partner in the US 'war on terrorism' launched after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Clearly, he missed a trick or two.
Firstly, Pakistan had no choice whatsoever in the matter. An enraged US had declared its “for us or against us” policy and reinforced its ultimatum to military dictator General Pervez Musharraf by parking four aircraft carrier groups off Pakistan’s coast. That kind of firepower would probably stretch China’s defences to a breaking point.
For little Pakistan, resistance would have been catastrophic: my sources told me at the time that the air force chief had advised Musharraf’s junta that, in the event of a US attack, his fleet would cease to exist in a matter of hours.
So, while Khan was right in saying that the war in Afghanistan has created more monsters than it has slain, including the militant insurgency that threatened Pakistan’s very existence for a decade, he failed to answer the question on everybody’s mind: what will happen to Afghanistan after US forces leave?
If nothing else, Khan could have pressed the case for a grand multilateral plan for the stabilisation of a post-conflict Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, just days earlier in Washington, had pushed the US not to repeat its mistake of deserting Afghanistan after Soviet occupation forces withdrew in 1989. Khan could easily have broadened that narrative at Davos by appealing for political and corporate leaders to pitch in.
Khan was even shakier on matters of the economy. In pitching Pakistan as an investment destination, he was able to draw on the developed world’s approval of the harsh austerity programme that his government has enacted since signing up for an International Monetary Fund bailout last July. But he was unable to capitalise on that goodwill because he did not present a viable economic vision to the billionaires in attendance at Davos.
Instead, some of his key points did as much to expose Pakistan’s shortcomings as they did to highlight opportunities.
Repeatedly, he said that foreign investment had doubled over the last year. In contrast, nearly all of it has been ‘hot money’ attracted by the double-digit yield of short-term treasury bills - themselves a symptom of Pakistan’s macroeconomic instability and inability to attract capacity-building inflows.
That said, Khan did make some interesting admissions. Addressing the threat of a conflict pitting Iran and the US and its Gulf Arab allies, he twice described Iran as a friendly neighbour of Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia as one of its closest friends. He also spoke about Riyadh’s largesse in Pakistan’s financial times of need.
Likewise, Khan finally broke his silence on China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, saying Pakistan did not want to aggravate its key ally with public criticism, because it had channelled tens of billions of dollars of Belt and Road Initiative investments into Pakistan when nobody else was willing to. Then he argued that the mistreatment of Muslims in Kashmir, India and Myanmar was a much bigger issue.
In doing so, Khan may have inadvertently cut to the chase. As has been the case since its creation in 1947, Pakistan still sees itself as a client state, rather than as a genuine partner. Most of its major decisions are built upon the convergence of interests with bigger states, and these invariably entail severe dependencies.
This may not have come as news to the serious global and regional players attending the World Economic Forum, but it would have given the broader audience the distinct impression that the people governing Pakistan are not up to the task and expect others to determine its fate.
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