After Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan seethed and fumed at US President Joe Biden’s refusal to talk to him over the phone, it now seems that one of the youngest foreign ministers in the world, Bilawal Bhutto, is to sally forth to Washington to meet his counterpart Secretary of State Antony Blinken. This is rather an outreach, given that Blinken hasn’t exactly been on friendly terms with the Bhutto’s predecessor Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
Outside on the streets, Imran Khan, the ultimate street corner politician, is drawing crowds, with his allegations of a ‘foreign-funded’ conspiracy to remove his government that seems to be gaining credence, making any reset in Pakistan-US ties more difficult. What makes it worse is that the brand new government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif seems shaky even before it has started. Allies show little enthusiasm for policy making and talk of early elections is in the air. Moreover, an already serious food crisis has been made worse by water shortages hitting the rabi crop, and the economy is in free fall.
For all these reasons and more, Pakistan needs the US. But there are two sides to this coin. There is also the question of what the US thinks Pakistan can deliver in its current state.
One side of the coin: The whirlpool that is Pakistan
There is little to enthuse any foreign government in the current state of affairs. After a long delay and public squabbling, PM Shahbaz Sharif finally appointed 37 cabinet ministers, 13 for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), nine for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and the rest going to smaller parties. That the PPP has less number of portfolios was more due to the hesitancy within the party to accept any important post within a government that not just had a short shelf life — elections being due in January 2023 — but also because no one wants to be held accountable for what is clearly a dire situation. PPP chairperson Asif Ali Zardari made a very unconvincing argument that the PPP would stay out of the cabinet to ‘serve the people’, as did the MQM-P (Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan). Bilawal himself took on the Foreign Minister portfolio more than a week later.
Thereafter, the first sluggish movement has occurred only a meeting with Nawaz Sharif in London, held in the tightest secrecy, after which major decisions are apparently to be made. Worse is to follow. The Prime Minister and his son have again requested deferral of a Rs 16 billion indictment case, due to a ‘medical appointment’ in the UK. Not the greatest way to win the people’s confidence, already dented by his brother Nawaz’s flight to the UK on medical grounds after a series of highly publicised corruption charges.
Then there is the public squabbling over early elections, which shows all concerned in the worst possible light. In short, political instability is rife, and likely to continue at least till the next elections, and probably thereafter if the current coalition trends continue. Not the best ally or friend for a foreign government to look to for assistance.
Then of course is the ageing but raging ex-Prime Minister on the streets. His story, paraphrased heavily, is that the US — enraged with Khan’s government — had issued a threat to Pakistani diplomats that if Khan was removed “all would be forgiven”. This he linked directly to the issuance of a ‘no confidence motion’ against him, and his final ouster. The fact that such a no confidence motion had been brewing for more than a year has been forgotten in the high decibel noise.
In a country where conspiracy theories jostle with one another, the ridiculous one is steadily gaining more credence — apparent as the crowds swell at each of his rallies — and made worse as the present government seems to be bent on proving Imran’s contention that it is made up of a welter of dynastic self-serving families.
And here is the icing on Khan’s cake. He hasn’t run away. He’s there, and there really seems to be no serious charge of corruption against him. His threat of a long march to the capital is dangerous, and is designed to force elections, and the establishment has few options. There is every chance that he could succeed, in which case there is also the chance that Khan will be back at the helm. Don’t forget the rumours that there is a faction within the army backing him. Any renewed Pakistan-US rapprochement has to take this into account.
A tottering economy and linked issues
Then there is the economy. The dollar is trading at about Rs 195, and a highest ever deficit of some Rs 6.4 trillion. The acting finance advisor Miftah Ismail clearly said the country has no option but to go back to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which means a rollback of subsidies announced by the Imran Khan government including on petroleum. This will take petrol prices to Rs 190 per litre, and diesel to Rs 230. That’s not just inflationary but will enrage people already tired of inflation. The IMF’s 24 April statement observes that “prompt action is needed to reverse the unfunded subsidies which have slowed discussions for the 7th review”. In other words, a condition for assistance.
Meanwhile, China has yet to show any signs of agreeing to roll over debt of some $2.5 billion and Pakistan is feeling the “Ukraine effect” with data from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics indicating a rise in oil import costs by over 96.09pc to $14.81 billion (July-March) from $7.55 bn over the same period last year. Added to all this, climate change has hit Pakistan hard, with a reduction of snowfall by a huge 26 per cent, leading to water shortage that could affect the rabi crop. Agrarian unrest has already been reported. The country is 14th among the 17 ‘extremely high water-risk’ regions in the world, and ranks 92 out of 116 countries in the Global Hunger Index, and it is facing a rising food import bill. Much of this is due to gross mismanagement and corruption. But it could take years to resolve. Meanwhile, social tensions are likely to rise when all of this is coupled with the present state of policy paralysis.
The other side of the coin – US readiness
US priorities have clearly shifted away from Afghanistan to other issues, including its own internal divisions and a 41-year-high inflation rate. Recent polls indicate a serious dent in President Biden’s popularity ratings with a 50 per cent disapproval rate, and the economy being the main negative factor. In simple terms, the US will now focus on countries where it can work on a solid economic advantage. In Pakistan, even China has burnt its fingers.
Second, the foreign policy aspect. Khan had earlier declared that Pakistan could play a role in bringing together the US and China, recalling the time when Henry Kissinger had travelled to China in 1971 in a secret visit coordinated by the government of then President General Yahya Khan. This history is being rehashed by Kissinger himself, and will certainly appeal to the lobby led by him, even as the many Pakistani academics in established institutions plead Islamabad’s case. The ‘lure’ is that US reengagement would draw Pakistan away from China. It won’t, despite the Pakistan Army’s outreach to the US. But it is possible that parts of the bureaucracy will try.
Third, Islamabad’s tried and trusted card of being an “Islamic country”. That won’t wash either. Pakistan’s standing in the Islamic world has never been worse, and countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are changing fast, and away from Islamabad’s narrow creed.
Fourth, the Afghanistan issue. While US forces have withdrawn, their intelligence will remain active, and for this Aabpara (ISI HQ) still remains vital and probably the most effective influencer in Kabul. Apart from intelligence sharing, there is the much touted issue of US airbases. What is far more likely are small drone stations, which are already likely to be operating into Afghanistan.
In sum, when Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto visits Washington, he is likely to be confronted by none too enthusiastic hosts, who find little to tempt them to engage with a severely unstable country. There is an intelligence community that both distrusts but needs Islamabad, who will keep it in play to the extent possible. There is also a wave of anger against India that may work in Pakistan’s favour at least among the many lobbies in US Congress. That may translate into promises of a few millions, but as always, with strings attached.
And most importantly, Bilawal himself is likely to want to keep any offers of US assistance under wraps for the time being. His tormentor on the streets will take any bilateral Joint Statement and twist it out of shape into election material. Delhi will naturally keep a close watch on any warming US-Pakistan relations. But the reality is that the Indian Ocean beckons, and that is where common interests lie with Washington. There’s nothing like shared insecurity to strengthen a relationship. It’s just that simple.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)