Pakistan’s new leader faces old constraints

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Imran Khan, the former cricket star turned politician whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won a plurality in the July 25 Pakistani elections, is set to become the country’s next prime minister. Turning towards Islamism, Khan campaigned on a populist platform of fighting corruption and building an Islamic welfare state, defeating Pakistan’s two established political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

Despite this historic victory, Khan will face barriers to implementing his promised reforms.

Competing for influence and resources will be the Pakistani military, which calls the shots in the country. It has entrenched views on what Pakistan’s national priorities should be (such as securing a power-broking role in Afghanistan and Southwest Asia), sees India through the lens of an archenemy and is obsessed with gaining control over Kashmir.

Beyond this, as US trust and financial aid for Pakistan fade, the Pakistani military is increasingly turning to China for loans, infrastructure investment and geopolitical support.

Sadly, each of the military’s objectives takes precedence over the needs of the Pakistani people at a time when the educational system and economy are in shambles.

While the military typically allows prime ministers some latitude to handle the domestic affairs of the country, it is understood that elected leaders must not become involved in national security policy.

The Pakistani military’s strong hold on the national finances and agenda has tied the hands of many a Pakistani prime minister, and Khan is likely to encounter similar challenges, despite his popularity and well-received campaign promises to improve education, health and other social services.

Some assert that it is different this time around given Khan’s uncommon background, his independence from Pakistan’s two dynastic parties (the PMLN and the PPP) and his platform against graft, which targeted his predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, providing the justification for the military and judiciary to imprison him.

The argument is that Khan’s opposition to Sharif put him in the good graces of Pakistan’s generals, who bristled at Sharif’s criticism of the military, clashed with his outreach to India and opposed his efforts to dial back support for Islamic terrorist organizations. This disdain for Sharif resulted in the military backing Khan’s more populist and pro-fundamentalist party, the PTI.

Khan’s unique story and path to power notwithstanding, he will face headwinds against the Pakistani deep state and will need to balance expectations between his supporters and the generals. After all, the generals want to keep the status quo on Pakistani foreign policy and to have a domestic leader who does not question their power.

Khan’s unique story and path to power notwithstanding, he will face headwinds against the Pakistani deep state and will need to balance expectations between his supporters and the generals

One of his first challenges is addressing the financial and currency crisis facing the country. Islamabad is expected to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a $10 billion to $12 billion loan it needs to keep its head above water and address its considerable problems. It is currently receiving tens of billions of dollars in Chinese loans and investments associated with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Pakistan’s impending financial difficulties come at a time at which  Khan is intent on making good on his campaign promise of expanding the tax base to support his envisioned Islamic welfare state. This will be a test for Khan, who will face IMF demands that Pakistan does not expand public spending. He will also learn of the onerous conditions that Beijing-backed loans are notorious for having attached to them.

Another issue facing Khan will be managing the complicated US-Pakistan relationship.

Over the years, Washington has relied on Pakistan for military supply routes into Afghanistan while facing mounting frustrations over Pakistan sheltering the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani terror network. Khan’s long history of criticizing the longstanding US military presence in Afghanistan and drone strikes on Pakistani soil may portend continuing tensions between Washington and Islamabad.

Just as the US has lowered the number of drone strikes in Pakistan, easing tensions, Khan can do his part by applying pressure on Taliban and Haqqani network militants and denying them safe haven in Pakistan.

Ultimately, it is likely that the Pakistani military will help to box in Khan’s hostility to the US out of a desire to maintain stable US-Pakistan security relations.

All this while Khan has no governing, policy or administrative experience.

These constraints aside, Khan can and should exert leadership in certain areas during his early days in office and while he has political capital, namely:

Upon assuming power, Khan will encounter the heavy hand of the military – and increasingly that of its growing patron in Beijing – placing restrictions on the ability of Pakistan’s political leaders to govern. As with his predecessors, this reality will require of Khan a balancing act with the generals in order to pursue his policy agenda. It is this bottom line that Khan is up against, a factor that has contributed to past failed leadership and that has bedeviled his country for decades.

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