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Imran Khan’s Pakistan and its Strategic Relevance for the UK

Pakistan’s government has been in power for two years and, notwithstanding obstacles, has had several major foreign policy achievements on which the UK could capitalise.

Nearly two years have passed since the election of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party into government. Perhaps the hallmark of Khan’s tenure has been a marked improvement in Pakistan’s global image projection and foreign relations. Yet the government continues to face significant challenges on the home front, as the economy remains fragile and the state of governance continues to be, at best, quite mundane. Still, Khan’s government is there to stay: with the full support of the country’s powerful army and a weak opposition, the political odds are heavily in Khan’s favour.

The Politics of Imran Khan

Imran Khan’s political struggle of more than twenty years can be compared with a thrilling test cricket match, full of twists and turns. Khan’s political career started with a bang but failed to make much head way. The first decade of this century was politically tough, and Khan’s party failed to make any significant headway; his decision to boycott the general elections of 2008 pushed him into further oblivion.

However, the domination of the political field by the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the ensuing bad governance and corruption created political space for a third force, an opportunity which Khan seized. Still, he failed to make a sizable impact in the 2013 general election and his politics gradually got bogged down in a monotonous crusade against the ruling PML-N government. But then, luck smiled on him: the Panama Papers scandal and the subsequent removal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court of Pakistan gave fresh energy to Khan’s political movement, eventually resulting in his success in the 2018 general election.

Foreign Policy

Khan’s government has managed to perform relatively well in the foreign affairs arena. Critical in this regard has been Khan’s personal charisma on the international stage and close coordination with the country’s national security establishment. Bilateral ties with the US have improved. A personal chemistry between the leaderships on both sides and Pakistan’s close cooperation with the US to facilitate the peace process in Afghanistan has had a positive impact on the relationship. President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate between India and Pakistan over the issue of Kashmir and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s acknowledgement of Pakistan’s role in US–Taliban talks can be classified as diplomatic victories. Pakistan has also managed to rejuvenate its ties with the Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia, while also positively engaging with Iran. 

Domestic Obstacles

The PTI government may have done better on the foreign front but eventually governments in Pakistan are judged for their domestic performance. This government has indeed failed to substantially deliver on its promises of good governance and enacting structural reforms in government institutions. The economic indicators did show some improvement but high inflation has hit Pakistanis particularly hard. The incompetence of public office holders, the recurring focus on short term development projects (building roads, drains) to entice voters rather than prioritising the highly underfunded health and education sectors and a failure to enforce a strict tax regime on the country’s mercantile classes has dismayed a significant chunk of government’s voting base – the salaried middle class. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic will likely further complicate this set of problems.

This governance picture remains ominous, but it would be wrong to interpret it as the harbinger of Khan’s political demise. Economic and governance woes have been a constant fixture in Pakistan politics for the last twelve years, yet they were never enough to alter the political fortunes of the last two Pakistani governments. Even the civil–military tensions during the governments of President Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif did not lead to the removal of an elected government.

Arguably, under Imran Khan, the executive branch and the military have developed an essentially symbiotic relationship, reinforced by the personal chemistry and trust between Khan and the Chief of the Army Staff, Qamar Javed Bajwa. With civil–military tensions non-existent, the other political variable challenging a government’s grip on power is the political opposition.

The PTI government remains exceedingly fortunate in this regard as well. With the party founder and former premier Nawaz Sharif in a political exile in London, the PML-N is beset by an intra-family feud between Nawaz’s brother Shehbaz Sharif and his political heiress and daughter Maryam Nawaz. This has prompted fragmentation within the party ranks and engagement between its disgruntled MPs and the government. This practically ends the possibility of any change in the government’s political fortunes. The coronavirus pandemic probably posed the most formidable challenge to Khan’s government but as the infection rate follows a downward trajectory and recoveries from coronavirus within the country increase, the government seems to be in safe waters and has decided to open up nearly all businesses.

The Strategic Relevance of Khan’s Pakistan For Global Britain

Pakistan and the UK not only share historical linkages from the time of British Raj but also remain politically and economically connected owing to the presence of a large Pakistani diaspora community in the UK.

Still, the British-Pakistani relationship debate needs to move beyond these areas and both countries need to establish a relationship that serves their respective political and strategic interests. Khan boasts a unique personal connection with the heart of British political and social life and British engagement with Khan’s government can revitalise these bilateral ties. Already, Khan has been instrumental in easing up the country’s visa regime making it easier for British tourists and travellers to visit Pakistan. This aspect can only be fully exploited once high-level official visits are exchanged and a serious political dialogue commences between the two governments.

Regardless of this personal variable, it is geopolitics that drives engagement between countries. The Chinese influence has been on the rise within West Asia and the Middle East. Indeed, the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, is one of the flagship projects of the Belt and Road Initiative. Moreover, Chinese influence and security partnerships have been on the rise in Central Asia. Most recently, China and Iran have agreed to a new partnership that will open the country to a huge amount of Chinese investments ranging from economic to security sectors. These developments may well make the Central Asia a ‘Chinese Plateau’. With the US planning to depart Afghanistan, such an occurrence will have implications for the politics and regional security of the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia. This scenario will push the UK to look for allies to increase its relevance in this part of the world.

Pakistan fits the bill as it not only boasts long standing ties with the UK but is also located at a regional crossroads. A legitimate question here will be about Pakistan’s engagement with China and why the country should be considered a partner from a British perspective. Here it needs to be understood that Pakistani decision-makers remain open to partnerships from multiple international actors and an attempt by Western powers to enhance their strategic ties with Pakistan will enhance Pakistan’s political leverage vis-à-vis China. Under Khan’s premiership a focus has been to develop the tourism and housing industries. British investors and firms have ample experience in both sectors and could further branch out into the hospitality industry and green energy projects.

Strategic cooperation with Pakistan will also be helpful in furthering the UK’s interests in the Arabian Peninsula and contributing towards stabilising the regional security environment in the Persian Gulf.

The UK and particularly its royal family still resonate in Pakistani popular culture and the rousing welcome which Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge received during their maiden trip to the country stands as a testament to that. This special bond is not limited to Pakistani people but also to its institutions. The Pakistani and British militaries enjoy longstanding relations and officers from both militaries remain part of each other’s prestigious military institutions. The Pakistani armed forces have been increasingly looking for partners in the western hemisphere to embark upon a modernisation programme that includes both off-the-shelf purchases but also support for developing their research and development infrastructure. British technological prowess could become critically important for such ventures. And, with the end of diplomatic diarchy – a hallmark of Pakistan’s political spectrum from 2008 to 2018 – Pakistan’s foreign policy has made great strides. All in all, the country remains an ideal strategic partner for the UK in Asia.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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