The US may control a handful of Pakistani political and military officials, but PM Imran Khan owns the street.
Last Wednesday, during a meeting with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in the Tunxi city of eastern China’s Anhui province, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the thoughtful remark that there was a need to “to guard against the negative spillover effects of the Ukraine crisis” in the Asian region:
“We can’t allow the Cold War mentality to return to the Asian region. It’s impossible to allow a repeat of camp confrontation in Asia. We mustn’t allow turning medium and small states in the region into an instrument or even a victim of the games of big powers. The Chinese side intends to move in the same direction along with Pakistan and neighbouring countries, play a constructive role in ensuring regional and global peace and make its contribution to Asia.”
Curiously, as it turned out, that was also Qureshi’s last tour abroad as Pakistan’s top diplomat. No sooner than he came back home, his government fell, engulfed in a murky situation of precisely the kind that Wang Yi warned against.
Did Wang Yi have a premonition? We may never know but it is inconceivable that he was unaware of the tensions in Pakistan’s domestic politics fueled from outside, which led to the regime change last weekend.
From all accounts, the coup attempt in Pakistan unfolded as per an Anglo-American script. Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed to have documentary evidence to show that the senior-most official in the US state department dealing with the region, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, had sent to him a threatening message via the Pakistani ambassador in Washington that his time was up in Islamabad as prime minister.
Imran Khan also alleged that the US embassy in Islamabad had been fraternizing with local politicians who subsequently defected from his coalition government. Washington has been vaguely dismissive about the allegations.
According to Khan, it was his official visit to Moscow in February, which coincided with the launch of Russia’s special operation in Ukraine, that provoked Washington the most – apart from his independent foreign policies and stubborn refusal to set up US military bases in Pakistan.
On Saturday, against the backdrop of the tumultuous political developments in Pakistan, the powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa waded into an unusual topic — Russia. He openly criticized Russia for its special operation in Ukraine, calling it a “great tragedy” that had killed thousands and made millions refugees and “half of Ukraine destroyed,” demanding that it must be “stopped immediately.”
He noted that Pakistan had enjoyed excellent defence and economic relationships with Ukraine since its independence but relations with Russia were “cold” for a long time because of numerous reasons, and that Pakistan had sent humanitarian assistance to Ukraine via Pakistan Air Force planes and would continue to do so.
Significantly, Bajwa also stated that “we share a long and excellent strategic relationship with the US,” and that Pakistan sought to broaden and expand relations with both China and the US “without impacting our relations with [either].”
Without doubt, the powerful general spoke with an eye on Washington, acutely conscious of the political transition in his country and taking care to place himself on the ‘right side of history.’
Bajwa’s message to Washington was three-fold: one, he didn’t share Imran Khan’s enthusiasm for close ties with Russia; two, nor did he share Imran Khan’s ‘anti-American’ foreign policies; and, three, he wouldn’t allow Pakistan’s alliance with China to overshadow his desire to deepen relations with the US.
Make no mistake, Pakistani generals are first and last seasoned politicians. That is why both China and Russia are acutely conscious of the geopolitical significance of the regime change event in Islamabad. Wang Yi’s prescient remarks find their echo in a report by the influential Russian daily Kommersant on Monday, based on expert opinion in Moscow:
“The dynamics of the current crisis indicate that Pakistan is at the threshold of a power change which may nullify many agreements with Moscow, considering that the new regime in Pakistan which will form in the next few months will be much more pro-American.”
According to the Director of the analytical center at the Moscow-based Russian Society of Political Scientists Andrey Serenko, “A special concern is caused by the fact that… Bajwa openly supported Russia’s adversaries. The drift of military-political heavyweights in Pakistan towards the US may have much more negative consequences for it [Russia] in the Central Asian region bordering Afghanistan. Belligerent and extremist elements in the Taliban, which are traditionally controlled by Pakistan’s special services, as well as the terrorist groups of the Islamic State and Jamaat Ansarullah have not lost interest in spreading jihad beyond Afghan borders.”
Equally, a member of the faculty of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy, Vadim Kozyulin, had this explicit warning to give: “Washington putting pressure on the Pakistani government inevitably leads to the complication of the security situation in the Central Asian region and the emergence of new risks for the CSTO countries.”
Succinctly put, Russian experts anticipate a reversal of Imran Khan’s friendly policies seeking Eurasian integration. China too will be apprehensive that one of the US’s top priorities is to undermine the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which Pakistan is a major hub. Certainly, the US will not want Islamabad to be a facilitator for the expansion of Chinese influence in Afghanistan. During a recent visit to Kabul, Wang Yi had proposed to the leadership of the Taliban Interim government the extension of the China-Pakistani Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship of the BRI, to Afghanistan.
From Iran’s perspective too, any surge in the US presence in Pakistan would have serious security implications, especially if US bases were to reopen. The negotiations in Vienna for the revival of the JCPOA are yet to come to fruition, and in any case, even with the lifting of US sanctions, Washington’s containment strategy against Iran is expected to continue in some newer form. The agenda of the recent conclave of the top Abraham Accords signatories, Egypt and the US [(hosted by Israel), was to build up a coordinated approach to countering Iran’s regional policies.
Pakistan has a history of aligning with the US’ Persian Gulf allies in their rivalry with Iran. Imran Khan deviated from that path and genuinely sought rapprochement with Tehran. To be sure, Washington will encourage the new regime in Islamabad to revert to the default position.
The broader US objective will be to roll back the Chinese presence in the Persian Gulf region. Thus, for a variety of reasons, while in the US strategic calculus, Pakistan always remained an important player, in the current context of global realignment, this becomes a pivotal relationship. The Pakistani military has an impeccable record of subserving American regional interests — and, it does have a rare capability and ‘expertise’ to do so — which no Muslim country is willing to perform in the current circumstances.
The US may be able to count on the Pakistani generals to ensure that Imran Khan does not ever again return to power. But the paradox is that his electrifying narrative — against corruption, for social justice and inclusion, Islamism and ‘anti-Americanism’ — has struck deep roots in Pakistani soil and will be difficult to vanquish. The main opposition parties stand hopelessly discredited in the public perception, given their track record of corruption and cronyism in office.
So, the big question is: Who will garner Imran Khan’s revolutionary rhetoric? A prolonged period of political turmoil can be expected. Now, in such a scenario, the role of the military becomes extremely crucial. The military leadership’s future intentions remain unclear. Traditionally, Pakistani military leaderships have been pro-US, and for its part, Washington always regarded the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi as its number one interlocutor.
The military denies involvement in civilian politics but the generals have in the past never hesitated to take advantage of political chaos to assume power. Of course, US backing for such a dispensation is indispensable and that is where Bajwa’s olive branch to Washington sets the agenda for politicking.