What Pakistan’s political shakeup means for relations with US
Pakistan’s new PM will seek to mend ties with Washington after Imran Khan’s claims of foreign interference, experts say.
As Pakistan’s Imran Khan fought to retain his post in the face of mounting pressure this month, the now-former prime minister pointed the finger at the United States to explain his political downfall.
Khan accused Washington of conspiring with the Pakistani political opposition to remove him from office, saying US President Joe Biden’s administration was upset over his “independent” approach to foreign policy and a visit to Moscow that coincided with the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“This narrative is not novel. It is a well-rehearsed one in Pakistani public discourse,” Ayesha Jalal, a history professor at Tufts University in the US, told Al Jazeera. “It’s the kind of claim you make when you’re in trouble domestically. We call it, seeing your troubles as gifts from abroad.”
But while experts say that Khan’s allegations of a foreign plot against him are unproven and largely politically motivated, they nevertheless highlight longstanding tensions in the US-Pakistan relationship that the premier’s successor, Shehbaz Sharif, will have to address.
“I’m sure the new prime minister and his staff and the military top brass will be very keen to repair relations,” said Jalal, referring to the effect of Khan’s allegations. “I think that would be very much on top of the agenda.”
Sharif, of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party, was sworn in on Monday after Khan lost a no-confidence vote in the Pakistani parliament, where he had failed to retain a majority amid criticism over a worsening economic crisis and allegations of mismanagement.
Sharif has pledged to rebuild the economy and “to keep building relationships with other countries on the basis of mutual respect, equality & peace”, he said in a tweet.
On Wednesday evening, Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Sharif for becoming Pakistan’s prime minister and said Washington looked forward to continuing its “longstanding cooperation with Pakistan’s government”.
“The United States views a strong, prosperous, and democratic Pakistan as essential for the interests of both of our countries,” Blinken said in a statement.
We also look forward to keep building relationships with other countries on the basis of mutual respect, equality & peace.
— Shehbaz Sharif (@CMShehbaz) April 11, 2022
But the perception in Pakistan has been that the Biden administration, which took office in January of last year, does not see the country as a priority amid other areas of focus, namely US competition with China and more recently, the war in Ukraine.
Political analysts have described US-Pakistan ties over the past decades as “transactional”, with Washington seeking Islamabad’s support on regional security matters – most prominently, Afghanistan – in exchange for financial assistance. But the relationship has not always been easy.
American officials have accused their Pakistani counterparts of not doing enough to tackle “terrorism” and of harbouring armed groups, including the Taliban. Pakistan at times has been equally angered, denouncing US drone attacks and saying the country had paid “a very high price” for backing the US in Afghanistan.
Madiha Afzal, a fellow in the foreign policy programme at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, said the relationship hit a low point in 2018, before Khan took office, when then-President Donald Trump cut security assistance to Pakistan.
But “a very public reset” took place the following year when Khan met Trump at the White House, she said. By that point, Pakistan was playing an important role in talks between the Trump administration and the Taliban to reach an agreement to end the war in Afghanistan.
“Towards the end of 2020, once President Biden was elected and the withdrawal from Afghanistan was imminent, Pakistan pitched a geo-economics-based relationship with the US,” Afzal told Al Jazeera, explaining that Khan had hoped Washington would begin viewing Islamabad beyond the lens of Afghanistan alone.
In an interview with the New York Times published in June of last year, Khan said he wanted Pakistan to have a “civilised” and “even-handed” relationship with the US after the Afghanistan withdrawal, which was completed at the end of August. That meant deepening economic opportunities, among other things.
“You know, unfortunately, the relationship was a bit lopsided during this War on Terror,” Khan told the newspaper. “It was a lopsided relationship because [the] US felt that they were giving aid to Pakistan, they felt that Pakistan then had to do US’s bidding.”
But Afzal said the Biden administration so far has not taken Pakistan up on its pitch. “The US-Pakistan relationship for the last 14, 15 months has now been characterised by a cold shoulder by the Biden administration to the Khan government,” she said, pointing to swirling questions over why Biden did not call Khan after moving into the White House as one example.
“Now that [the US has] left Afghanistan, there’s very little left to be interested in, other than of course the usual issues of non-proliferation and terrorism and drugs,” added Jalal. “India is very much on the American mind rather than Pakistan.”
Perception of balance
Afzal said it now will be interesting to see how the US approaches Pakistan under Sharif’s leadership. Biden was US vice president when Sharif’s older brother, Nawaz, a three-time prime minister, held the post, “so the Biden administration is familiar with the Sharif family”.
But she explained that Washington’s relationship with Pakistan historically has focused on the country’s powerful military, which had been on “the same page” with Khan is his foreign policy approach.
“[Khan] was saying he wanted an independent foreign policy, he wanted good relationships with all counties – that is the foreign policy approach both of the civilian government and the military … [But] in the last few months it ended up looking different because of visits to China and Russia, whereas there hasn’t been a relationship really with the White House,” Afzal said.
“[The military] does want a positive relationship with the US and looking like Pakistan is not properly balancing its relationships with the US and with China, is something the military does not like.”
For her part, Jalal said that while she believed US-Pakistan ties will return “to the normal situation”, it would be a mistake to think that Islamabad would not continue to pursue relations with Moscow as it seeks to mend things with Washington.
“This [balance] is not an Imran Khan policy; it’s a state policy,” she said. “So, I think it’s important to understand that.”