US-Pakistan relationships have always been difficult – but many wonder if they had ever before reached this low level? Democratic Biden and not Russia’s Putin sending the message that a popularly elected prime minister of Pakistan is unacceptable to Washington is both awkward and amusing. Both sides have arrived at this difficult juncture through a series of misunderstandings, bad judgments, and missteps. But there is still time to reflect – for long-term consequences will be terrible for all.
The United States is the moral leader of the Western world – and by that virtue of the blue planet. This leadership extends in all dimensions: economy, science, technology, military power, and the power to define right and wrong. Powerful states and empires have existed in the past and those with a superficial view of human history often end up comparing America with the powers of the 19th century like the British empire or the earlier Ottomans.
Even a serious thinker like Indian origin author Fareed Zakaria (Author: The Post American World) had made comparisons with the Roman Empire by arguing that “not since Rome the world has seen a power like the United States.” But, the British empire, the Ottomans and ancient Rome were puny of a power when it comes to the scope and reach Washington enjoys in shaping its own age – and in real-time. British empire, mostly a function of the colonialism of the 19th century, was mainly a patchwork of loosely arranged territories held together in the interests of the English crown through coercion, complex alliances, and careful image management. From the screen of James Bond, Britain is still a major player on the world stage, but in reality, it merely projects American power. London’s collapse did not happen with the Suez crisis or the loss of erstwhile colonies after WWII but was evident from the beginning of the 20th century when the United States intervened in a European war (WWI) to save Britain and France from a deadly stalemate with Germans. Ottomans, like Byzantines before them, were mainly a Mediterranean power. Rome appears perfect from the pages of history books and Hollywood screens. In reality, Roman legions had to march for months to fight endlessly in the forests of ancient Britain, Gaul and Germania– in battles that were often unpredictable. The power of Rome was always fragile and under challenge.
United States is history’s first Global Power
The United States, by contrast, is human history’s first power with a global reach. From the plains of Eurasia and Africa to the wastelands of Antarctica, American power and influence touches the lives of elite and ordinary people alike. Till the 19th century, Latin America was Washington’s playground – now, it is the whole world. Then it was busy experimenting with the making and unmaking of Republics across its Southern hemisphere and now the whole world is an American laboratory. And many experiments go wrong. This explains the relationship of love, hate, fear and envy America enjoys with the world. Pakistan is no exception.
America inspires Pakistanis of all ages, ethnicities, and social backgrounds. While most Americans may not be able to easily point out Pakistan on a map, in Pakistan – like in the world elsewhere – America is part of every living room, from the farmhouses of Chak Shehzad to the shanty towns of Machar Colony in Karachi. Most Pakistanis would like to study, work and live in the US and to become US residents and citizens. Pakistanis love eating Mcdonald’s, possessing iPhones and watching Netflix. And they like Pakistan Airforce to shoot down Indian Migs with American F-16s. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page are also heroes to educated Pakistanis and so were President Obama and Hillary Clinton. To be more nuanced, the likes of Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer, Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie are inspirations. But Pakistanis also use American inventions – YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp – to blast American foreign policy towards them and the Muslim world. Most literate Pakistanis – if not all of them – feel that their country’s fate has been intertwined with America’s changing strategic interests.
Most Pakistanis believe Washington is doing “Regime Change”
This paradox, of contradictory feelings, to a great extent, has been a creation of the United States changing priorities towards Pakistan. At times Washington was firmly aligned with military dictators (1958-1971) and at other times, it supported democracy movements, political antagonism, and civil society aspirations against the Pakistani military (2007-2018). In the process, it kept on changing its friends and foes – and many wonder what is the real nature of America, what it stands for? Most believe that the 1977 PNA movement, the military coup against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his hanging under the military dictatorship was supported by Washington. But they also believe that Gen. Zia’s death in a plane crash that brought Benazir Bhutto (ZA Bhutto’s daughter and Bilawal’s mother) to power was Washington’s act under changed priorities. Similarly, many would blame Washington for Benazir’s assassination in 2007, the rise of Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistani politics, the lawyer’s movement and the sharp civil-military divide that followed from 2007 onwards.
It is in this context that 99 percent across Pakistan now believe that America is behind regime change in Pakistan and would not let PM Imran Khan come back to power in the next elections – however popular he may be. It is like Turkey in 2016, where everyone – for and against Erdogan – believed that the failed military coup was orchestrated by the United States. Pakistanis can be neatly divided into two groups: One, that hates America for removing a popularly elected government and second, that welcomes America for doing that.
It is now difficult to understand if Donald Lu, the US Assistant Secretary of State, on March 7, 2022, was conveying his personal assessment or a message from the Biden administration when he told Pakistan’s ambassador, Asad Majeed Khan, that “Imran Khan is personally held for the foreign policy decisions and if he survives the no-confidence move then bilateral relations will suffer and Pakistan will have consequences, and if the no-confidence move succeeds then Pakistan will be forgiven” (italics mine). This does not matter anymore since these unfortunate words have become part of history, like Shakespeare’s “Et Tu Brute?”. Whether Julius Caesar actually said those words – 1500 years before Shakespeare – is now of no consequence.
Pakistani politics and it appears foreign ministries of Russia, China, Turkey and Iran have absorbed that Washington has created the circumstances by courting opposition parties and old cronies – as Ambassador Bhadrakumar puts it – to remove Imran Khan from the political scene. Since his government has already fallen, that means that Washington will work behind closed doors to ensure that Khan and his party are not allowed to return back to power in a subsequent election. If that turns out to be true, then it will have huge implications for Pakistan, the region and the United States. This is clearly Pakistan’s “Mossadeg Moment” (Tehran, 1953) and will give rise to a fulminating anti-Western narrative, the kind of one that created Iran’s Islamic revolution 25 years later– not needed by either Pakistan or the United States. In the case of Pakistan, with the popular rise of anti-west entities like TLP, this is already around the corner.
Is Imran Khan Anti-American and Anti-West?
The irony is that Khan is neither anti-American nor anti-West. If anything – unlike his opponents rooted in feudal or tribal cultures – he is quintessentially a product of Western thought and values. His political consciousness, his ideas of self-respect and his abhorrence of corruption are derived from his experience of growing up in England. Immediately after high school, he landed in Oxford. After university, he spent more than twenty years in the UK playing county cricket. This was a role that ultimately saw him winning the world cup as Pakistan’s captain in 1992. For most of his early pre-politics life, he was a notorious playboy whose girlfriends were mostly from the English aristocracy. And so was his first wife, Jemima Goldsmith, daughter of billionaire James Goldsmith. His sons – Sulaiman and Kasim – live with Jemima in London. His image as anti-American “Taliban Khan” is a stupid misunderstanding. This is a carefully created media narrative that was coined by his political enemies and exported by the Pakistani press when after 9/11, he rose in defiance against Gen. Musharraf’s policy of allowing US drone strikes across Pakistan. Imran’s strong stand against drone strikes was part principle and part ethnicity. His mother was Pashtun with roots in South Waziristan. Khan, in his cricketing days, had spent huge time trekking across the tribal belt – at times with his English girlfriends.
Photographs of a young Imran Khan sleeping on rocks, or charpoys, sharing tea and breaking bread with the tribals abound on social media. He adored their hospitality and fell in love with their cultural nuances, self-respecting ways and code of honor. From 2006 onwards, these tribal areas became the principal target of US drone strikes leading to thousands of deaths, including those of children – and Imran Khan became a crusader against the drone strikes and for finding a peaceful solution to the conflict. Let’s move forward to the post-2018 election period. Politics, everywhere, demands catchy terms to reach the hearts and minds of common men and women. Imran Khan’s advocacy of “Riyasat-e-Medina” – that frightens many liberals – is not the resurrection of a religious Islamist order but is a concept borrowed from the post-war welfare state in Europe and so is his “Sehat Card” that emulates British NHS and adopts it to Pakistani circumstances where every family has been offered a health insurance of Rs. 1 million.
The apparent trigger for the Donald Lu communication lies in the strong reactions generated by the Ukraine war and Khan’s Moscow trip. Before the war with Russia, few in Pakistan would have known where Ukraine is. This was quintessentially a European security issue and the kind of emotional response it has generated across Europe was beyond comprehension in Pakistan – especially when they compare it with the wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Why Donald Lu’s communication asserted that the Russia trip was Imran Khan’s individual decision and not of the Pakistani state is surprising and, at best, a miscommunication. Pakistan’s quest to improve relations with Russia has been going on for the past quarter-century ever since PM Nawaz Sharif visited Moscow in 1998 – and the February visit was widely discussed across all branches of the government, foreign office and the military and had the full support of all sides -including ex-diplomats who had served in Russia and the United States. All those familiar with the discussions that took place before the visit emphasize that Imran Khan’s visit was never against Ukraine or Europe’s interests or was to send a message of defiance to the United States. This visit focused on Pakistan’s’ energy requirements and access to Central Asian markets; it was conceived and discussed purely in the context of Moscow’s historic mistrust of Pakistan and implications of a last-minute cancellation.
Washington sees Imran Khan as an “Islamist Taliban Khan”?
But Khans’ troubles with US foreign policy did not start with the Ukraine war and Moscow visit, or the “Absolutely Not” in HBO interview in August 2021. These started much before his taking over as Pakistan’s Prime minister. Before the 2018 elections, Khan invited several ex-diplomats who had served in the US to understand how he was perceived in Washington. He was shocked when he learnt that most in Beltway politics see him with deep suspicion and he is viewed as an Islamist and a product of the Pakistani military – not a man of his own ideas. Diplomats explained to him that the English press in Pakistan and India had painted him as an “Islamist” and as a “product of the military” for too long. And these impressions have been picked up, multiplied by the Western media on both sides of the Atlantic and turned into a belief. It was part propaganda and part misunderstanding because of his strong position against US drone strikes and his political rhetoric to neutralize his opponents like Maulana Fazal ur Rehman and other ultraconservatives across the provinces of KP and Punjab – who accused him of representing a Jewish conspiracy against Islam – because of his earlier marriage with Jemima Goldsmith.
As prime minister Imran Khan inherited Pakistan’s ongoing difficult negotiations with the US on its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Despite the initial bumpy start, he was able to establish excellent channels of communication with Donald Trump, taking him to the White House in September 2019. He was warmly received by Trump and Melania, the first lady. Pakistan and the US cooperated very well on the intricate process leading up to the Doha talks and a stage was set for US withdrawal from Kabul. Real challenges started with Biden coming to power in January 2021. Most in Islamabad don’t fully understand why Joe Biden failed to engage a leader whom he knew and with whom he could have enjoyed the most meaningful relationship in the region. However, expert hands think that Biden – who, unlike Trump, was fundamentally an institutional man – inherited old biases of the second Obama administration dating from the period 2014-16. Pentagon and CIA then were hugely frustrated for what they described as a lack of cooperation from Pakistan on Afghanistan. Things were not helped when Pakistan Supreme Court exonerated Omar Sheikh – the accused, in the murder of WSJ reporter, Daniel Pearl in January 2021. This prompted an angry call from a visibly upset Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Pakistan’s foreign minister to lodge a strong protest – and matters never settled. Focus shifted to Afghanistan where developments were unfolding at a huge speed. Sudden fall of Kabul in August 2021 added toxicity to the already frosty relations. Though Obama had first presented his exit plan from Afghanistan in 2009, yet twelve years later US military still felt the exit as a defeat and held Pakistan responsible for that humiliation. The US had privately demanded operational bases, logistics and air corridors for monitoring Afghanistan as early as June 2021. Given the evolution of Pakistani politics on this contentious issue since 9/11, it was impossible for a political government with lofty rhetoric of sovereignty to accede to these demands. Washington felt embarrassed. Pakistan’s foreign minister and NSA were prompted – after the HBO interview of “Absolutely Not” – to explain that the US had never asked for any bases.
The bottom line is that challenges in US-Pakistan relations have been building up since 2011. It was a year of upheavals that set the stage for difficult future relations. Raymond Davis Affair, the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the Salala tragedy all in one year. Misunderstandings or conflict of interest never gave way to a satisfactory way forward and things had already reached a tipping point in the last few months of the Obama administration, of which Biden was an integral part. In the post-Afghanistan scenario, three areas define US difficulties with Pakistan: India, China and Indo-Pacific. Washington wants Pakistan to mend fences with India on Indian terms; it wants the country to pull back from its strategic ties with China and to help the US and India in the Indo-Pacific theatre. For Pakistan, all three areas are fraught with fears and difficulties. There is no dearth of politicians and non-politicians in Pakistan who seek power with Washington’s help and will promise progress on at least two issues: India and China. In reality, this will be hard for any government to deliver – especially one that takes over in the current political climate when everyone believes that Imran Khan has been forced out to meet Washington’s demands and is not being allowed to come back even through elections.
Imran Khan still represents the best deal for Washington and the West. Unlike his corruption-tainted political opponents, he offers a genuinely popular leader – even amongst educated Pakistani American diasporas – who can be engaged on a clear road map with Washington. Given his nationalistic stand – and the trust of Pakistani intelligentsia and the masses he commands across Punjab and KP – negotiated decisions he makes will earn wider acceptability. Imran Khan needs to tone down his rhetoric in public rallies and on tv and conduct foreign policy behind the scenes. He needs communication experts to help him change how he has been perceived across the US and the west. But it also depends upon a fundamental rethink in Washington; can America be persuaded to switch from the old strategy of “Regime Change” to the more meaningful “Regime Engagement.”