World·Analysis

Pakistan's new PM wants to rebuild ties with the West — but is the U.S. willing?

Pakistan's recently ousted prime minister Imran Khan often took an anti-West approach during his nearly four years in office. And while the country's new prime minister says he wants to improve ties with the West, including Washington, experts say he faces an uphill battle.

With the U.S. out of neighbouring Afghanistan, experts say that task won't be easy

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan during a meeting in Moscow on Feb. 24 — the same day Russia invaded Ukraine. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters)

In the early hours of Feb. 24, as world leaders lined up to condemn Russia's president for his invasion of Ukraine, Pakistan's now former prime minister found himself in a complicated position. 

As Russian missiles and artillery first struck Kyiv and other cities, Imran Khan was in Moscow, shaking hands with Vladimir Putin. 

Khan not only refused to condemn Russia, he also criticized Western nations for asking him to do so. Islamabad wanted to remain neutral, he argued.

Less than two months after that trip, Khan was ousted from office in a vote of non-confidence — the end of nearly four years in power for the cricket star-turned-politician, as opposition parties accused him of mismanaging the country's crumbling economy and soaring inflation, as well as failing to deliver on anti-corruption promises.

Khan has alleged the move was orchestrated by the U.S., who wanted him gone because of his foreign policy. But in reality, experts say, Khan had lost the support of Pakistan's powerful military, and opposition parties saw an opening to take over. 

Pakistan's new prime minister says he wants to improve ties with the West, including Washington. But experts say even with Khan out of office, Shehbaz Sharif faces an uphill battle because Pakistan's influence with the West is fading. 

The elusive phone call 

Over the last two decades, Washington's relationship with Pakistan was largely centred around the U.S.-led war in neighbouring Afghanistan — including recently, when the focus shifted toward how to end the long war. 

"There was interest in Pakistan, in the Trump administration, to sort of facilitate dialogue [and peace talks with the Taliban]," said Ayesha Jalal, director of the Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies at Tufts University in Massachusetts. 

"After that, there isn't any interest."

Soldiers escort a convoy of trucks, carrying supplies for NATO troops in Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border town of Chaman on July 16, 2012. Pakistan served as a U.S. ally in the Afghan war, but has also been accused of covertly backing the Taliban at times. (Saeed Ali Achakzai/Reuters)

U.S. President Joe Biden took a different approach, said Christine Fair, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

It's been noted that after Biden took office, he never called Khan, who was often critical of Washington's approach in Afghanistan. Pakistan has also long been accused of supporting the Taliban and harbouring some of its members, though the allegations have been denied by Islabamad.

"Biden wanted out of Afghanistan … [he] was the vice-president for eight years and he knew the intel on Pakistan," said Fair. "Pakistan was supporting the Taliban and they were imposing, essentially, a military defeat upon the Americans."

"[Pakistan] has a multiplicity of interests, some that are in conflict with ours when it comes to Afghanistan," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the House foreign affairs committee in September, a month after the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. 

Blinken added that Washington was reviewing what kind of relationship it wanted with Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of some 220 million, strategically located in South Asia. 

But now that the U.S. has pulled out of Afghanistan, Biden "doesn't have a lot of use for Pakistan," suggested Fair. Rather, Biden is focused on a different country in the region. 

Looking north and east 

"There's no question that the U.S. is looking much more squarely to India," said Jalal.

"With the sort of ending, if you like, of Pakistan's dependency on the U.S., Pakistan has been looking around for allies," said Jalal, referring to the billions in military aid the U.S. has given the country to combat militant groups in the region. 

"It always had China, and Russia made sense, simply because of the change."

Pakistan's Gwadar Port, on the Arabian Sea, is shown on March 19, 2007. Beijing invested money in the deep-sea port as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which aims to link the area with western China. (Qadir Baloch/Reuters)

Pakistan's ties with China date back decades and have been partly fuelled by both countries' aim to counter India's influence in the region.

China is a major arms supplier to Pakistan. Beijing has also pledged billions of dollars in infrastructure projects as part of its massive Belt and Road Initiative, though there are concerns around how those projects will impact Islamabad's debt. 

Pakistan started to develop ties with Russia in the early 2000s — a move that made sense, given the relationship between Moscow and Beijing, Fair said.

Khan's visit to Moscow in February — the first by a Pakistani prime minister in two decades — was focused on trade and energy. But by then Russia had been building up troops along the Ukrainian border for months and analysts predicted an invasion was imminent. 

"There's timing and there's also judgment when you do something," said Jalal. "What was he doing in Moscow on the day Putin was invading a sovereign country?" 

Alleged U.S. conspiracy 

Khan cites his trip to Russia as part of the reason why the U.S. allegedly conspired to oust him from office — allegations Washington flatly denies. But Khan had risen to power on a populist wave, promising a "new Pakistan." 

"He's taken a page right out of President Trump, with the great steal. Khan is saying that this has been an American conspiracy," said Fair. 

Fair said it was actually Pakistan's army that led to Khan's downfall. It stopped backing him, she said, because he interfered with army appointments.

The military has ruled Pakistan for nearly half of the country's 75-year history — and continues to exert influence even when there is a civilian government.

"Every American official of any consequence knows that Khan's not relevant — it's the army chief," said Fair. "So why would they waste their time masterminding a coup of this sort?" 

Pakistan's military has denied Khan's allegations against the U.S. The army chief put out a statement saying the two countries have a "long and excellent strategic relationship."

Pakistan's prime minister-elect Shehbaz Sharif speaks after winning a parliamentary vote at the national assembly in Islamabad, Pakistan, on April 11. (Pakistan National Assembly/Handout via Reuters)

Pakistan's new leader Sharif — considered more Western-friendly than his predecessor — says he wants to renew that relationship on "an equal basis."

Last week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked if Sharif can expect a phone call from Biden. She wouldn't confirm if that would happen any time soon. 

The army's next move

Observers say as the country grapples with its latest political crisis, they will be watching how the army deals with Khan. 

The ousted leader is not backing down. He continues to galvanize his supporters with his claims against the U.S. 

Supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party carry national flags as they take part in a rally in support of the ousted prime minister Imran Khan, in Karachi, Pakistan, on April 16. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

"We can be friends with the United States," Khan told tens of thousands at a rally in Karachi on Saturday. But, he added to thunderous applause, Pakistan won't be anyone's "servant." 

He urged his supporters to demand early elections; the next vote is not due until next year. Even if the country's parliament is dissolved before then, the country's election commission has said it can't organize polls until at least October. 

"What we're actually seeing with Khan … is basically [he's] facing off with the army. He's not really facing off with the opposition," said Fair. "And so how the army manages his shenanigans, I think, is going to be interesting." 

Jalal added: "I think [Khan's party] will try to create a scenario which would be an invitation for the military to step in, which it has done so many times."

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