The US Finds Itself on the Wrong Side of Imran Khan’s Populism

The US Finds Itself on the Wrong Side of Imran Khan’s Populism

The US Finds Itself on the Wrong Side of Imran Khan’s Populism

Widely blamed for mismanaging the economy—and hemorrhaging support since he was elected amid accusations of vote rigging in 2018—Khan seems to believe that running against the US is his ticket to victory.


Islamabad—Pakistan’s embattled prime minister, Imran Khan, in a speech that is likely to reverberate in both Washington and Beijing, accused the United States last week of having crushed the “self-esteem” of the Pakistani people.

During his address to Parliament, which was ostensibly about the fiscal budget passed the previous day, Khan pontificated on topics as diverse as the golden age of Islam, genetic modifications of Pakistani livestock, and the “miraculous” achievements of the Communist Party of China.

But nowhere—not even while recounting his own achievements—was he as impassioned as when he trained his ire on US-Pakistan relations. Describing Pakistan’s involvement in the War on Terror as “the blackest period” in the country’s history, he vowed to never again be a “partner in conflict” with the United States.

The extent to which he remains able to honor this commitment is yet to be seen. Widely held responsible for mismanaging the economy, which has returned disappointing growth figures and calamitous levels of inflation, he has been hemorrhaging support ever since he was elected amid accusations of vote rigging in 2018. In the Senate elections of March 3, his party failed to gain a majority in the upper house, which was seen as an indictment of not just his leadership but also his ability to enforce party discipline. Members of the lower house—where Khan has a numerical advantage—and four provincial assemblies are tasked with electing senators in a secret ballot, and it is uncommon for the ruling party not to win outright.

There is also a sense in Islamabad that the country’s powerful military elite would prefer to keep positive relations with America and that the timing of Khan’s speech, which came a day after he told Chinese state media that Pakistan would maintain its close relations with China in defiance of US pressure, could be construed as an attempt at taking sides. Speaking on the 100-year anniversary of the CPC, Khan lauded the “special relationship” between China and Pakistan and promised to maintain it whatever the circumstances. “You only remember a friend who stands with you in your difficult times,” he told Liu Xin of CGTN, and—not one to rely on the subtlety of implication—Khan returned to the theme of friendship in his speech the following day. “Is America our friend?” he asked Parliament. “Have you ever heard of a friend bombing you? Have you ever heard of an ally using drone attacks against you?”

In the febrile atmosphere of Pakistani politics—exacerbated in this parliament by the opposition’s belief that the prime minister was “selected” by the military rather than elected by the people, it must count as something of a victory for Khan that his remarks on America seemed to energize the house—but then anti-Americanism has always been a popular rallying call. For Sartaj Aziz—who served in the previous administration as adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs—it is also an effective way of “diverting the agenda” from Khan’s domestic failings. “Imran’s stock is falling, and he sees this as a way of elevating himself,” he told The Nation.

Aziz also suggested that Khan might have been lashing out at having been seemingly slighted by the Biden administration. Even though he became president in January, Joe Biden has apparently yet to make contact with Khan, and senior members of the US cabinet have repeatedly skipped Pakistan in their visits to the region. Just last week, Khan’s US-educated national security adviser, Moeed Yusuf, appeared to bristle at suggestions that Islamabad was being snubbed by Washington. “If they don’t want to speak to us, it’s up to them. No one here is waiting for their phone call.”

But while the US has yet to reach out to the Khan government, it has contacted the Pakistan military. Back in May, the US Charge d’Affairs to Pakistan, Angela Aggeler, met with Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa to discuss matters of mutual interest and the possibility of strengthening ties. In the aftermath of Khan’s incendiary speech to parliament, some observers have even begun to speculate that the Prime Minister is trying to show the people that he is still calling the shots.

Whether or not this leads to the kind of protracted tussle between the political and military spheres that resulted in the ouster of former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, only time will tell. But what is certain is that the failure of the Biden administration to reach out has allowed Khan and his government to paint the United States as a cynical and exploitative superpower prone to pathological displays of irrationality. Speaking about General Musharraf’s decision to join the War on Terror, Khan said, “At the time, we were told that America was angry [after 9/11] and that like a wounded bear it could throw its claw anywhere.… I used to ask repeatedly what business we had getting involved in that war. Al Qaeda and the Militant Taliban were in Afghanistan, not here.”

Pakistan’s relationship with America has been placed in sharp focus by the news that the United States is on the verge of withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, something that has led many in Pakistan to draw parallels with the end of the Soviet Afghan war. Islamabad believes—with some justification—that it was left to deal with the blowback of the Mujahideen and the resultant refugee crisis that enveloped the region. The subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, catalyzed by the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, made Pakistan a “frontline” state in the War on Terror, according to Khan. “I asked repeatedly what we had to do with that war,” he said. “Does any country get involved in another’s war and lose 70,000 lives? What they [America] said, we kept on doing. Musharraf said in his book that he took money and sent people to Guantánamo Bay.”

In a lately resurfaced interview from January 2002, however, Khan appears to defend Musharraf’s decision to join forces with America. “Bearing in mind how opinion has changed since September 11…I do not think the president had much choice. I think in the circumstances this is the best he could have done.”

Still, what is clear despite the U-turn is that Khan is planning to fight the next election on an anti-America platform. Buoyed no doubt by the exploits of his foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who was given a hero’s welcome on his return to Pakistan after he accused Israel of having “deep pockets” in a CNN interview, it would appear that Khan’s strategy is to position himself as an Islamic leader—albeit one that doesn’t seem terribly interested in the plight of the Uighurs—at odds with the West and American Imperialism. Whether that will be enough to persuade voters disenchanted with his domestic performance remains to be seen. At the moment it would appear unlikely, but a week is a long time in politics and the next election is not for a couple of years.

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