There are a hundred ways to criticise PM Imran Khan; his performance on foreign policy issue is not one of them. Barely six months back when he took over the office, the foreign policy of the country was spiralling out of control from Kashmir issue all the way to the fall out with the US on Afghan war. It appeared that it would take years to repair the damage done to the country.
Fast-forward to six months and the situation has entirely changed in what is no less than a miracle. The PM may not have proven himself yet on the economic turf or taken the bull of governance reforms by its horn, he sure has delivered on the foreign policy turf in more impactful ways than any other prime minister in our recent history. The true extent of his impact is yet unknown to many of the analysts and even PTI supporters that have reduced the foreign policy victory to his narrow ability to raise loans from friendly countries or save Pakistan from isolation.
For those of us that study and work in the foreign policy space, it is less about loans and isolation and more about the change that is being felt both, at the discursive level and more so at the policy implementation level. This is especially significant given that security establishment is believed to jealously guard its territory allowing little room to the civilians to interfere. With PM Imran Khan taking head on some of the most critical foreign and security issues including India and the US, there is a genuine opening for a change. In many ways he has demonstrated what Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was able to establish in the 1970s, that a serious prime minister with the right intellect and exposure has the ability to shape the foreign policy despite resistance.
For instance, what was supposed to be the toughest pitch to play, the PM has breezed through it without breaking a sweat. His approach to India is a delicate balance between a classical and neorealist position allowing him to pursue peace from the position of moral strength while keeping the idealism of peace intact. His approach to semi bypass the Indian establishment to reach out to the Indian people and bring the Sikh community closer to Pakistan through the Kartarpur Corridor is a monumental feat. For the first time in decades, India finds itself in an unknown territory with Pakistan where civil-military forces are on the same page pressing India for peace. Modi’s reluctance due to his electoral needs is an uneasy bargain that is likely to cost him the elections. Given that foreign policy is essentially all about ‘timing’, PM Khan’s blunt response to Modi and pressing through the Kartarpur Corridor at the time of Indian elections is a classic case of how Pakistan has been able to checkmate the Modi government. The Kartarpur Corridor therefore is a significant achievement for the future of this region that only with time we will come to truly appreciate.
But nothing is more striking than Senator Lindsey Graham’s over-the-top statements on PM Imran Khan. Here is a senator that has long been an active voice against Pakistan in Washington, DC going against the diplomatic protocol to get down to personal level and generously praise Imran Khan. This reflects a serious change in Washington, DC despite all the efforts to the contrary by a specific segment that has been pushing the US to wage war on Pakistan. Senator Graham’s statement on the PM is significant for two key reasons. First, it vindicates Imran Khan from the ‘Taliban Khan’ label with the US formally accepting that his position was right all along. This is a big moral and political victory for Imran Khan personally. Second, it is a global endorsement of not just the PM but of Pakistan at the end of the war for its overall positive role. History is most likely to be kind to Pakistan when it comes to the War on Terror.
But what is driving this change? These changes are not out of nowhere and are rooted in both the leadership and structural changes in the country. First, the change in leadership from a traditional political PM to a non-traditional PM that has made his career outside of politics is critical. Like him or hate him, Imran Khan’s celebrity status, integrity, competitive approach and blunt talk changes the way how foreign powers see and engage with a country like Pakistan. The very fact that Pakistan is not led by a PM caught in corruption scandals and known to have only enriched himself while serving in politics for 40 years changes the very perception of the country abroad.
Second, the civil-military being on the same page and not cutting each other out allows for a smooth shift in policies. PM Imran Khan rightly recognises the security establishment as a key voice in the foreign and security policy. Instead of cutting it down to size and engaging in petty games, PM Khan has risen himself in stature to be able to dictate the foreign policy terms. The speed with which India, Afghanistan and the US account is being managed is reflective of this change.
Lastly, Imran Khan is able to utilise the capability of the military bureaucracy and Foreign Office – both highly functioning departments. Their core competence allows a civilian PM to get the necessary plans into action, something that the PM is struggling in other sectors. A seasoned foreign minister and a military-Foreign Office bureaucracy that is well organised can demonstrate how effectively policies can be implemented and results achieved.
While the foreign and security policy will remain in a constant flux with changing global challenges, what is comforting is that there is finally a prime minister in Pakistan that is a master of this game with a recipe to win.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2019.