“We’re gonna have a more transactional relationship…I’ll leave it up to the experts to decide if we should escalate [military action against Pakistan].” That’s US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham in 2011 as he advocates US military action inside the sovereign territory of Pakistan.
“Earlier our (Pakistan-US) relations were transactional that if you give us this we will give you that and if you don’t give us this we will take that away from you.” That’s Lindsey Graham in Islamabad last week as he advocated replacing this transactional relationship with a strategic relationship based on free trade relations.
Now, Lindsey Graham is not the most consistent of critics. Graham fiercely opposed Trump before his election and is currently one of his most influential supporters. But this movement in the outside world’s perception of Pakistan is not limited to the Senator from North Carolina. Pakistan is reforming its place in the world.
“Prime Minister Khan is the agent of change I’ve been looking for,” says Graham. Pakistan’s Prime Minister is making new friends and setting the record straight.
He’s dining with the visionary Mahathir Mohammad in Kuala Lumpur and driving Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nayhan in Islamabad as the Crown Prince of the UAE returns to Pakistan after 12 years. From there he’s off to Doha to meet the influential Emir of Qatar after flying off to Riyadh to meet the powerful Crown Prince, MBS. He’s receiving US diplomats and senators two at a time and signing deals in Beijing. When he’s at home in Islamabad, he schools the President of the USA on Twitter telling him to brush up on his history.
His detractors call it a stunt. That the Prime Minister is flying on state resources when he should be flying commercial to what they consider to be inconsequential dinners and curated photo-ops.
Imran Khan’s foreign policy is arguably the most dynamically-effective foreign policy from a Pakistani leader perhaps since Bhutto tilted towards Moscow and sought to unite the Muslim world in Lahore.
A big part of his reformist push has been what the Prime Minister calls economic diplomacy. The pervious government’s foreign policy, or the lack thereof, which was illustrated through the fact that for the greater part of their five-year tenure, the government functioned without a full-time foreign minister, led most noticeably to Pakistan alienating its traditional allies in the Middle East. As Riyadh and Abu Dhabi broke off ties with Doha, and the Gulf Cooperation Council went into meltdown, Islamabad froze. Haunted by a decades-old rudimentary thought process that viewed multi-faceted foreign relations through a one-dimensional “friendly or unfriendly” lens, Islamabad’s ties with Abu Dhabi and Doha both went into recession, as Islamabad played it safe, and cautious to offend either by reaching out to the other, retreated from the Middle East altogether. For all intents and purposes, the last government’s foreign policy was little more than a reactionary Beijing policy, which involved little exchange of ideas as Islamabad relegated itself to the receiving end.
As part of Imran Khan’s economic diplomacy though, Pakistan has reached out, effectively, to the Middle East, rebuilding decomposing bridges between Islamabad and the Middle East. More so, the Prime Minister has done that while the crisis of the Gulf Cooperation Council continues to deepen without compromising Islamabad’s position with either Doha on the one side and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the other. And it’s not just photo-ops either, the diplomatic frenzy is paying dividends. Billions of dollars’ worth of dividends. Riyadh has already shored up Pakistan’s dwindling reserves with an impressive $6 billion, only to be matched by Abu Dhabi, while a $10 billion refinery is reportedly on the way. Nothing, however, illustrates the well-thought-out, dynamic nature of Khan’s foreign policy than the fact that while Abu Dhabi and Riyadh shore up Pakistan’s economy, it is not at the expense of Islamabad’s relations with Doha, as the Prime Minister cemented his warm welcome in Doha with reportedly significant LNG concessions.
Washington is the Prime Minister’s next big challenge, and soon to be his next big achievement. Trump’s arrival in the White House spelled disaster for Pakistan as he called out the US-Pakistan relationship for its dysfunctionality. That was expected. What was not expected was Islamabad’s awkward response to the aggression. With no Foreign Minister to state Pakistan’s case to DC, Pakistan geared up to listen to the damning sentence from Trump without having presented its defence. Trump had come to the White House with a flamethrower directed towards Islamabad and a small note hanging from the tip saying “change my mind”. The previous government’s reaction was to borrow Trump’s flamethrower, turn it on its own face and pull the trigger. Not only was billions of dollars of aid cut off but Pakistan’s immense sacrifices in the war on terror were squandered and its reputation devastated, as the ally for which Islamabad had fought a decades-long war turned on it to claim that it had gotten nothing from Islamabad, except “lies and deceit.”
It is in this context that Imran Khan has gotten Ashraf Ghani, who previously refused to engage with Islamabad, to thank Pakistan for trying to bring peace back to Afghanistan, and a hawkish republican US senator who previously called for military action against Pakistan, to recognise Pakistan’s role in fighting and ending the war on terror.
Imran Khan has argued Pakistan’s case, and through his charisma and sustained efforts, has gotten the world to listen. The previously raging American diplomats and officials are now swarming Islamabad to thank it for playing its role in bringing peace to Afghanistan, and the leaders of Doha and Riyadh alike, once again warming up to Islamabad — all while the strategic relationship with Beijing is not comprised in any way. Pakistan’s place in the world is forcefully moving towards it being recognised not as a dormant, unreliable and dysfunctional member of the global community, but as an important, serious player in global foreign relations playing an active, and most importantly, internationally recognised role, in building socio-economic bridges and promoting peace in its region.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2019.