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As Imran Khan takes office, military looms over plan for 'New Pakistan'

Why We Wrote This

From campaign slogan to oath-of-office attire, Imran Khan has signaled he wants a new chapter for Pakistan. It’s a frequent promise of charismatic, break-the-mold politicians. But it often collides with the realities of government – in this case, a powerful army.

K.M. Chaudary/AP
Pakistani politician Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, addresses his supporters during an election campaign in Lahore, Pakistan, July 23, 2018. Mr. Khan is expected to take the oath of office as Pakistan's next prime minister on August 18, 2018.

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Pakistan’s next prime minister, Imran Khan, would be an interesting character under any circumstances. Once a heartthrob athlete who led his cricket-mad country to its only World Cup victory, he then made a new name for himself as a philanthropist and politician. His campaign vows to create a “New Pakistan” are especially significant in light of the nation’s outsize role in the region, from the war in Afghanistan, to tense relations with neighboring India – which, like Pakistan, is a nuclear power. Then there’s its place at the middle of a tug of war between the United States and China. But Mr. Khan is likely to find his road to reform a steep one, regional experts say: hemmed in on one side by an economic crisis, and on the other, by a military that traditionally wields power over civilian governments. “When it comes down to it, all this is with Khan is old Pakistan getting a new PR manager – who will try to market it to the world as a new Pakistan,” says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington.

When Pakistan installs Imran Khan as its new prime minister Saturday, the cricket star-turned-populist politician will be wearing an old sherwani, or traditional coat-length garment.

As part of his bid to demonstrate frugality and a new path for Pakistan’s leadership, Mr. Khan plans to forego the crisp new sherwani traditionally crafted for the ceremonial swearing-in by one of Islamabad’s go-to tailors to the political elite.

The gesture seems to fit a politician who ran on a slogan of “New Pakistan,” and attracted the support of down-on-politics Millennials and a besieged middle class by promising an end to the country’s rife corruption, nepotism, and political-party patronage.

But wearing a used garment to take the oath of office is likely to be the easiest, if not one of the only, innovative and tradition-shattering steps the mold-breaking Khan is able to take. Hemmed in as he will be by a deepening economic crisis on the one hand and a military that continues to hold the levers of power on the other, Khan is likely to find the road to his “New Pakistan” a steep and encumbered one, regional experts say.

“Despite Khan’s image as a breath of fresh air with new approaches to Pakistan’s old problems, I don’t think he’ll have the capability to make much domestic change,” says Mohammed Ayoob, a South Asia expert and distinguished professor emeritus at Michigan State University.

“No prime minister can change course unless it’s first approved by the military quarters in Rawalpindi, and chances are little to nonexistent he’ll be able to make good on something like his campaign pledge to help bring peace to Afghanistan unless the military sees it fits their purposes,” he adds. “Across the board, the military is going to keep Prime Minister Khan on a very short leash.”

Pakistan has retreated from the central place it once held in US foreign policy, as Washington has turned its sights to building a strategic partnership with India, lost interest in Afghanistan, and tired of its old game plan of modifying Pakistani behavior with foreign aid.

So the prospects of a new type of Pakistani political leader might not seem to matter much in the global scheme of things – were it not for a few critical realities:

  • Pakistan’s status as a nuclear power with Islamist insurgents at home and smoldering tensions with neighboring nuclear-power India;
  • Its outsize role in the war in Afghanistan, a conflict the United States dearly wants to conclude and leave behind;
  • And its place at the center of a regional tug-of-war for influence between the US and China.

For all these reasons, Pakistan is unlikely to fade further from US interests. Yet in the same way that Khan will have trouble delivering a new Pakistan of corralled corruption and a vibrant economy at home, he will also run into roadblocks if he tries to move in new directions on foreign policy that the military does not support, analysts say.

“When it comes down to it, all this is with Khan is old Pakistan getting a new PR manager – who will try to market it to the world as a new Pakistan,” says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US who is now director of South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

'Follow the script'

Khan is hardly a vocal critic of the military. Throughout the campaign, Pakistan observers have underscored the army “establishment’s” seeming support for the unconventional candidate. After dozens of parliamentary candidates for the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were intimidated or otherwise forced to pull out of the elections by what they alleged was a military campaign, cries arose of a “soft coup.” No civilian leader in Pakistan’s 71-year history has finished a full term, with many deposed in military coups.

Khan has been critical of the US treatment of Pakistan but won’t be allowed to risk rupture with the US, Ambassador Haqqani notes, since the military depends on the US for sophisticated weaponry. On the other hand, the military continues to see its source of power and legitimacy as its defense of the nation against India, he adds, so any effort by Khan to follow through on campaign pledges to improve relations with New Delhi are likely to be undermined. 

Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
Paramilitary soldiers walk past the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, Pakistan on Jan. 16, 2012. Some analysts say the military's significant influence will likely limit the new civilian government's maneuvering room.

Professor Ayoob points to the case of the previous prime minister, Mr. Sharif, who was brought down ostensibly over corruption and for sizable and questionable financial holdings outside the country. The three-time PM returned to Pakistan in July, one week after being sentenced to 10 years in jail.

“But if that were indeed the reason for his removal we’d have to see similar action against 99 percent of Pakistani politicians,” Ayoob says. The real reason, in his view, is that Sharif did not “follow the script” the military set for him, particularly on India – and, indeed, was deposed by the military in 1999 before winning a third term in 2013.

Sharif “tried to move away from the course set for him,” Ayoob says, “but his efforts at warming relations with India were especially alarming to the military, so they got him out of the way.”

Put to the test

As Khan launches into what many say will be a make-or-break first 100 days in power – most critically assuming management of a nose-diving economy – for some analysts it remains to be seen whether the prime minister’s new political model will end up a strength or a weakness.

“What we’re seeing with Imran Khan is another example of a new populism replacing the old machine party politics,” said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, speaking recently at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

Comparing Khan’s rise to that of Norendra Modi in India, Mr. Markey said “charismatic leaders” are increasingly able to use new technologies to sidestep political parties and “reach out directly to individual voters.” Yet while the “new populism” may have got Khan elected, he adds, “it doesn’t necessarily bode well for the management of democratic governance.”

Indeed Pakistani political observers note that while Khan’s movement won a plurality of votes, the two main traditional parties together outpolled Khan’s PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) party by several million votes.

Moreover some analysts, like Ayoob, believe that Khan’s election victory, which required him to cobble together a coalition of numerous small parties and factions, was a design on the part of the military to further limit the new civilian government’s maneuvering room.

Money troubles

Still, the military powers that helped pave Khan’s path to victory are not going to want him to fail precipitously, experts say. And that means action will be expected on the country’s first order of business, the plummeting economy.

With more than 70 percent of Pakistan’s GDP eaten up by servicing of the external debt, and with foreign exchange reserves around a meager $10 billion – or about two months’ worth of imports – most analysts believe the new government will have to move quickly to secure a sizable bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Any IMF bailout would also presumably come with a raft of austerity measures – not exactly the “Islamic welfare state” Khan promised in his campaign. Moreover an IMF loan bid would run afoul of the US – which is already voicing its objection to a loan, for fear that it would be used to pay off what it sees as China’s predatory loans to Pakistan.

The US has effective veto power over loans at the IMF. At the same time, some analysts say, the US may end up thinking twice about any action that could push Pakistan deeper into China’s arms.

But what troubles some most about the prospect of a big international bailout is that it would just be more of the same – Islamabad has received a dozen over the past three decades – and would suggest “New Pakistan” really was just a campaign slogan.

“Everyone would agree on building a new Pakistan, but it’s not going to be achieved by following old patterns and perpetuating old excuses,” Haqqani says. “The country’s vision remains limited by those old ways,” he adds, “and that’s going to handicap us.” 

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