Will the Pakistani Prime Minister’s Campaign Slogan Be “Yes, We Khan”?

Nikkei Asia describes Prime Minister Imran Khan’s initiative that will send voters to the polls as “paving the way for [the] South Asian nation’s first ‘foreign policy election.’” As everything having to do with politics in Pakistan is complex, though perhaps never as complex as it has become today, untangling the threads of this constitutional crisis will not be easy. Nikkei’s characterization of what is likely to follow as a “foreign policy election” is accurate, though whether there will be an election depends on a decision of the Supreme Court.

Pakistan has perhaps the most complex history of any Asian nation. At this moment of global repositioning accelerated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, things have become more complicated than ever. This is due to the fact that Pakistan has been part of a geopolitical game involving India, China and Russia while sharing a traditionally porous border with Afghanistan. At the same time, this young Muslim nation has the reputation of being consistently aligned with the United States since its creation in 1947. The US was persistently and largely embarrassingly involved in Afghanistan for four decades until President Joe Biden decided to pull out of a two-decade military occupation last summer.

When the political crisis reached its peak on Sunday and Khan succeeded in avoiding a non-confidence vote, perhaps the most astonishing comment came from Major General Babar Iftikhar, the head of the military’s public relations wing, who declared that the “Army has nothing to do with the political process.” This might surprise attentive observers of Pakistani politics who have long understood that the military has always been the force controlling all the nation’s political processes.

Khan has succeeded thanks to what some call a ruse. He has defined the crux of the current crisis to be Pakistan’s relationship with the United States. It has never been a secret that the nation’s military, as Chief of the Army Staff General Kamar Bajwa explained last week, shares “a long and excellent strategic relationship with the US which remains our largest export market.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Strategic relationship:

A term to describe the level of cooperation, collaboration and respect that exists between two nations, the quality of which can range from a bond of mutually acknowledged equality to the exploitation of a lord over a vassal.

Contextual note

Before the actual move to dissolve parliament on Sunday, the BBC provided its description of the state of political play. “Imran Khan, elected in July 2018 vowing to tackle corruption and fix the economy, remains popular with some voters, even though a lot of his public support has been lost as a result of rocketing inflation and ballooning foreign debt.” Khan was clearly aware of the public’s dissatisfaction with economic trends and may have reasons to fear the results of a general election. But, to his credit, Khan has been more active than previous prime ministers in reining in corruption.

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However, Pakistanis are so inured to corruption, they don’t necessarily see it as a disqualifying criterion. In an earlier article, the BBC quoted a disappointed citizen encountered in a barber shop who had voted for Khan in 2018 but appears ready to favor Khan’s opponents. They are allied with the Bhuttos and Sharifs, two families that have previously dominated Pakistani politics and are reputed to be notoriously corrupt. The BBC interlocutor did not seem to care much about that and said, “They might be corrupt but at least they help poor people.”

Still, the political stakes may not be just “the economy, stupid.” The BBC cites another customer of the same barber shop. “We have to endure this hard time,” he stoically proclaims. “Imran Khan has taken a stance and we should stand with him.” What may not have been quite as clear at the time of the BBC’s survey of barber shop opinion is that Khan was ready turn the debate into exactly what Nikkei Asia described: “the nation’s first ‘foreign policy election.’”

If that is the case, it will be interesting to see how Pakistan’s military seeks to influence the outcome of the crisis. The new formulation of the army’s neutrality concerning political processes seems even more surprising when taking into account a defiant remark General Bajwa made in March, when he attempted to push Khan to resign. He justified his activism with these words: “Allah didn’t allow us to be neutral as only animals are neutral.”

Although Bajwa insisted on the longstanding alliance with the US — highlighting the American market’s importance for the economy as a destination for Pakistani exports —  another remark he made helps to explain how Pakistan’s geopolitical positioning may be shifting. “I believe,” he declared, that “the world today is built by those who believe in cooperation, respect and equality, instead of division, war-mongering and dominance.” This raises the interesting question of whom the Pakistanis see as nations focused on “cooperation, respect and equality” and whom they identify as warmongers. Bajwa squarely identified Russia’s incursion into Ukraine as putting it on the evil side of the balance, which contrasts with Khan’s insistence on not taking sides on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

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Khan has focused on the perception of the US, which he sees as promoting the very “division, war-mongering and dominance” General Bajwa vilifies. The prime minister has made two claims: that he has evidence of a US plot to overthrow his regime and that the Pakistani military has sent him “written threats to step down.”

Historical note

Stepping back to situate these events in a broader historical context can help to clarify the issues. Recently talk of a “new world order” has made its way into the headlines. This idea has come from two opposite directions: Xi Jinping’s China and Joe Biden’s America. Xi’s version of a new world order is explicitly multipolar. “The rules set by one or several countries,” Xi proclaimed last year, “should not be imposed on others, and the unilateralism of individual countries should not give the whole world a rhythm.”

Biden’s version sounds not only different from Xi’s, as we might expect, but is paradoxically identical with what most people recognize as the old world order. “Now is a time when things are shifting,” Biden declared a week ago. “We’re going to – there’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it. And we’ve got to unite the rest of the free world in doing it.” Anyone with a sense of historical reality may find it difficult to see any deep semantic difference between Xi’s evocation of imposing rules on others and Biden’s idea that “we’ve got to lead it.” The “unilateralism” Xi disparages appears to be precisely what Biden’s champions by insisting that “we’ve got to lead it.”

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In January, The Financial Times summed up the conclusion reached by Xi and Putin in the definition of their newly solidified partnership, noting that “the Russian and Chinese leaders are united by a belief that the US is plotting to undermine and overthrow their governments.” That is the message Khan has put forward and which will likely dominate the eventual election campaign that will follow the dissolution of parliament. More significantly, the increasingly obvious US strategy that consists of avoiding or undermining peace talks between Ukraine and Russia makes it look as if the US is focused on two basic objectives: undermining every government in the world that doesn’t fall into line and turning NATO into the superstructure of a unilateral empire controlled financially and militarily from Washington.

Instead of a new world order, if that is the strategy of the US, it is little more than a reinforced version of the old world order, more military than ever. The major obstacle, however, is that a traditional ally such as Pakistan or a more recent one like India, who though opposed amongst themselves, can no longer be counted on to toe the line.

Khan is probably right about a US-led effort at regime change. That seems to be the first reflex of any US president’s foreign policy. It has rarely, if ever worked, but at the core of US culture is the resolution to always “try again.” A lot of ordinary people around the world have become aware of the futility of that pattern. The political elites are only just beginning to feel the pressure to change this worn out pattern.

What that means is that we are witnessing essentially a new world disorder. What follows is anyone’s guess.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.