Can the ‘anti-American’ Imran Khan improve Pakistan-US ties?
ISLAMABAD: Over the years, Imran Khan has been known for his anti-American rhetoric, once even suggesting he might as prime minister order the shooting down of U.S. drones targeting al-Qaeda figures along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Now that Khan is poised to become Pakistan’s leader, Washington will be watching closely for signs of whether he will follow a path of confrontation or continue with the conciliatory tone he struck in his election victory speech.
His attitude toward the United States and President Donald Trump – to whom Khan has often been compared as a populist shaking up the established political order – could determine the future of a crucial but fraught relationship.
Officially allies in fighting terrorism, Pakistan and the United States have a complicated relationship, bound by Washington’s dependence on Pakistan to supply its troops in Afghanistan but plagued by accusations Islamabad is playing a double game.
Tensions have grown over U.S. complaints that the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network that target American troops in Afghanistan are allowed to take shelter on Pakistani soil.
“We want a relationship with America that benefits both the countries, that it is a balanced relationship, and God willing, we will try our best for that balanced relationship,” Khan said in his victory speech on Thursday.
However, some experts believe that his years of anti-American rhetoric, which prompted opponents to mock him with the nickname “Taliban Khan”, will make improving relations difficult.
“Even if (Khan) starts toning down his rhetoric, I don’t know if he can send any signals to make Washington hopeful,” said Sameer Lalwani, co-director of the South Asia program at the Stimson Center think-tank.
Khan has been vocally opposed to drone strikes on Pakistani soil and questioned the need for an open-ended U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
In the run-up to the 2013 election, Khan said that if he came into power he could shoot down U.S. drones if appealing to the United States and going to the United Nations did not work.
However, the number of drone strikes in Pakistan has reduced dramatically since peaking in 2010, reducing one potential point of friction.
A former senior U.S. official also said much of Khan’s anti-American rhetoric was for public consumption.
“I think he is certainly capable of being more pragmatic… He is not averse to U.S. interests and we will have to see how campaigning turns into governing,” the official, who has met Khan several times, said. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
Though famous in cricket-playing countries as one of the greats of the game with a playboy reputation in his younger days, Khan remains largely unknown in Washington.
An early test could come in September, when he is expected to attend the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York along with U.S. President Donald Trump and other world leaders.
Khan is viewed by some as similar to Trump – confident in his own abilities despite having little governing or foreign policy experience.
“When two leaders have so much in common, there is a high possibility they either will be good friends or sworn enemies,” said Jonah Blank, a former director for South and Southeast Asia at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee now with the RAND Corporation think-tank.
“Ultimately the policy is going to be decided by the security establishment and the security establishment really would like to keep things on a fairly even keel,” Blank said.