The new government in Pakistan, led by Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party, will have vast challenges awaiting it on taking power, including a fragile economy, massive debt and the geostrategic challenge of maintaining foreign relations, to name just a few. A paramount priority is the extent to which the new government will be willing to prioritise and actively lead the country's external affairs and stabilise the security milieu of the country.
Many in Pakistan foresee the PTI-led government ceding much of its control over foreign strategic affairs to the military establishment by default. But it still cannot be seen to shirk its duty of responding to international diplomatic stresses, due to Pakistan's complicated position on different regional issues. Relations with India, US and Afghanistan are frayed, Kashmir is growing more volatile and Pakistan is weighed down by massive debt which is growing, in part due to the loans for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is said to be Pakistan's geostrategic and economic game-changer.
The issue of militant extremists on its soil has also constantly heightened the international perception of Pakistan as a pariah, which is another contentious issue awaiting to be tackled. In a connected world, economy, foreign policy and security affairs are inextricably intertwined with each other and since all three are major areas of concern for the fledgling government, there will be interesting times ahead for the “new Pakistan” of Mr Khan.
The previous two governments, especially that of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), to a great extent owed their fractures to friction with the security establishment on foreign policy matters. Even though there is an overall perception that PTI has been successful in winning the confidence of the establishment over the past five years, Mr Khan is known to be notoriously unpredictable in his decision-making and is reported to seldom heed even closest counsel. One would hope that his years in politics have embellished him with the acumen to deal with the tricky Pakistani tightrope-walking act of civil military relations. Certainly his public statements have matured much over the years.
One of his first major international challenges could be the international perception of Pakistan, which is currently exacerbated by being placed on the terrorism financing watch list. US-Pakistan relations are more contentious than ever. Since Mr Khan first entered politics in 1996, American policymakers and analysts have acknowledged his appeal but routinely dismissed his political significance, instead focusing on his sympathetic rhetoric toward extremists. Indeed, the nickname "Taliban Khan" that he earned in segments of western popular media has stuck.
His refusal to condemn the attack by the Taliban against the Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai in 2012 and his stance in 2014 calling the Taliban “our brothers” and “our own people” during a Pakistani government counter-narrative effort are just two of the many problematic red flags in his anti-West portfolio of rhetoric. It also remains to be seen how Mr Khan’s anti-drone stance and refutation so far of Pakistan’s part in the global war on terror will shape in the long run.
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While both Donald Trump and Mr Khan can be blunt, the latter might just have benefited politically from such grandstanding against an already unpopular US among Pakistani masses. He might surprise his detractors by adopting a more statesman-like role, which he already seems to be growing into.
Another of the most troublesome issues smearing Pakistan’s international reputation is that of extremism and the state’s repeat failures to deal with it, either by negligence or tacit approval, depending on what international lens is being used.
Even though religion and extremism are intertwined in Pakistan, the issue runs deeper. If religion had been among voters’ top priorities, the religiopolitical parties would have been a primary choice. However, as with all other elections, this one has also demonstrated that religious parties and coalitions like the Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA) have failed to impress Pakistani voters significantly.
The extremist project coalesced in the form of “new” rightist political parties that contested this election. Even though they failed to win any notable success, their presence as political actors and their street power remains a challenge for the new government. These new far right parties included Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), Milli Muslim League, which contested from the platform of Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek and old sectarian groups such as the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), Sunni Tehreek and Majlis-i-Wahdatul Muslimeen.
These parties also contained clusters of smaller groups within their overarching structures and acted as catalysts for dividing the constituencies of older religious parties like the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Samiul Haq faction) and factions of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan.
It is a fact of life in Pakistan that what these parties lack in electoral votes, they make up for by the potential to cripple life in Pakistan through their lockdowns, shutter-down strikes and protest sit-ins, or dharnas (which some would say were pioneered by Mr Khan). All government efforts to handle such volatile gatherings have been dealt with kid gloves in the recent past, except for the 2007 siege of Lal Masjid in Islamabad in Pervez Musharraf’s time. That opened a Pandora’s box of terrorism and led to more than 150 deaths, which no Pakistani government would want to repeat, especially Mr Khan’s.
However, trends have shown that these groups incrementally ask for more concessions when they perceive someone being even slightly accommodating. It remains to be seen where Mr Khan will draw the line.
Sectarian parties like the hardline ASWJ were also contesting elections under the banner of Rah-i-Haq party. Even though the party was originally banned under Pakistani anti-terror laws, it and other parties found breathing space through the electoral process.
In a farfetched paradigm, this could be construed as a de-radicalisation effort aimed at mainstreaming radicals. Though largely unsuccessful so far in elections, ASWJ and other parties pose the potential to give any incumbent government a hard time.
Terrorism and extremism thus urgently demand a coherent response in Pakistan. While PML-N did not present much more than aspirational goals without a clear road map in the shape of the National Action Plan against terrorism and extremism, PTI has not fared much better. However, there is much to PTI’s credit in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where it is said to have actively supported the army’s counter terrorism campaigns, raising, for example, a civilian-led quick response force to bolster policing in affected areas.
Mr Khan will now be required to lead from the front in devising a tangible anti-terrorism and anti-extremism policy for Pakistan with a clearer strategic direction, which he is in a better position to do, thanks to his purported relations with the security apparatus. He has also recently made bold comments against terrorism, for example when PTI candidate Ikramullah Gandapur died from injuries caused by a suicide attack in Dera Ismail Khan during campaigning. Mr Khan vowed that he would never be intimidated by terrorists in any way, a resolve which he, of all people, might be able to carry into action.
For Mr Khan, much remains to be done; spiralling debt and massive corruption would confound many an elder statesman. Although he has come to power precisely by decrying corruption, this was aimed more at his political opponents rather than anyone else and is unlikely to result in robust anti-corruption structures in Pakistan or a significant decrease in corruption overall.
It remains to be seen how he will translate all this rhetoric into action. However, his personal integrity is unquestioned and an incorruptible leader might just be what the nation needs at the moment; the rest might slowly fall into place. No matter how they turn out, one thing is for sure; the coming years will make Mr Khan and Pakistan the focus of international attention.
Khawaja Khalid Farooq is the ex-head of Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority and a retired inspector general for Pakistan Police