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Imran Khan and Pakistan’s Future: A Roundtable

Octavian Report: Who is Imran Khan as a politician, and what are the core tenets of his party?

Farahnaz Ispahani: Imran Khan is a very interesting character. He was very famous for being captain of the Pakistan cricket team. He’s been a playboy both in the Western world and all over India and Pakistan. His brand of politics is, I would say, right of center and sometimes openly Islamist. So even though his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which means the Pakistan Justice Party, is treated like a mainstream party, it’s actually very close to the religious Islamist parties that exists in Pakistan.

Aparna Pande: It’s been his desire to actually be Prime Minister since the 1990’s. He is populist, but he doesn’t really have any fixed views. He’s gone back and forth on his views over the years. He is close to the Pakistani military as he believes that they’ll help him come to power, and actually it did help him come to power this time around.

C. Christine Fair: He could have been Prime Minister about 10 years ago. Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, was really active in trying to augment the ranks of his party by getting very senior members of one of the opposition parties, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party, to defect to his party. But he didn’t want to come to power through a coalition. The Army certainly would have engineered a victory for him then as they have now, but he didn’t want to do that. He realized that the only way he’s going to be Prime Minister is by playing a game with the Army.

In fact, for many years, the Army would sometimes question the investments they were making because he would say very derogatory, caustic, and antagonistic things toward the Army. The Army is not going to have an easy time manipulating this guy. But for the first time in a really long time, maybe ever, he is the only option that the Pakistan Army has. I think the patience of both of them will be tested pretty strongly.

OR: Does he want power for its own sake or does he want power because he is, to some extent, committed to the cause of the PTI?

Farahnaz Ispahani: The PTI is meaningless. The PTI is Imran Khan. He is a symbol, as I said: cricket star, great philanthropist. But if there’s one thing that identifies him, he’s always spoken against corruption. That is what has attracted a lot of young, first-time voters to him and his party. The ideology is anti-corruption, whatever that means.

He’s never been in power in his 22 years of politics directly, so once he sits in the seat of the Prime Minister and his party, let us see how he does with the job of politics. Pakistani politics is all about corruption, money, and horse-trading.

Alyssa Ayres:  It is also the case that he has focused on issues with the other two major parties — how Pakistan’s elected leaders have come from only two families in the past couple of decades. He keeps talking about building a new Pakistan, and creating an Islamic welfare state and delivering prosperity to people. You could see how this would be appealing to people who would like to see their country succeed and who would like to be better off themselves. But the big problem here is that he is extremely limited. He continues to be a partner of the military and can only undertake things that the military approves of.

Fair: The reason why he can be so squeaky-clean on corruption is that he actually hasn’t been in power. And now he’s basically being co-opted by the Pakistani political machine. And he’s got a lot of people in his party who are looking for patronage. I think what is going to happen very quickly is that he will be sullied in the same way that everyone else has been sullied.

And if he wants to create an Islamic welfare state, he has to do something about taxation. Pakistan has some of the world’s worst compliance with taxation laws. I think Bangladesh fares better than Pakistan. It has no agricultural tax. It has no industrial tax. It relies upon a poorly complied-with income tax and regressive sales taxes. The very things that he would need to do to make this transition that he speaks about are actually impossible because the people in his party are going to oppose it just like every other party member has opposed the implementation of those taxes.

OR: How does this election change both Pakistan’s internal politics and its local geopolitics?

Fair: What I found very disturbing in this campaign was his very close alignment not only with Islamist political actors, but actual individuals that are tied to terrorist organizations. There were something like 800 people who were more or less in support of him that were actual members of terrorist organizations. I think that’s extraordinary given that Pakistan had just been given a gray rating by the Financial Action Task Force. That was a pretty big middle finger to the United States — because they certainly deserve a black rating.

And one of his comments was incredibly incendiary about the Ahmadiyya community. I think he’s going to be really bad news for Pakistanis. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis have been murdered by Pakistanis in the last decade and change. He is not going to do anything to bring peace to Pakistan domestically, that’s for sure.

Ispahani: A major issue in Pakistan is also freedom of religion and belief. Pakistan has the harshest blasphemy laws in the world. Pakistan’s religious minorities live in fear for their lives a lot of the time. Khan spoke about how if he came to power, he absolutely would not change these laws. And on the point about terrorists: Hafiz Saeed of the group LeT, Lashkar-e-Taiba — he ran for elected office. He is meant to be under house arrest at the very least. But he was campaigning openly. This is the man who is alleged to be the mastermind of the Mumbai massacre. The United States government has put a $10 million bounty on his head.

It’s shocking. This just shows how this was really not a clean, fair election for democrats who were running because you had 800 known terrorists who have murdered people, sometimes hundreds and sometimes thousands, involved.

Ayres:  Khan gave a victory speech, and, if you landed from the Moon and the first thing you knew about Pakistan was this speech, it was a pretty good speech.

He really set a tone for looking ahead in a positive direction. He spoke in the first half of his speech about his domestic agenda and his ideas of an Islamic welfare state. People who have looked at this are not quite sure what that means really. He’s talked about trying to make Pakistan like Medina. We’ll have to see how that unfolds.

The second part of his speech focused on foreign policy, and for me, that was the interesting part. The first country he mentioned in this foreign policy component of his speech was China, and how China was the country that had really given Pakistan a chance in the world by creating this China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project. It’s up to a $62 billion pledged commitment, though not all of that has been realized yet, to build infrastructure throughout Pakistan and connect China’s western provinces to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan.

And I think there are a lot of concerns both in Pakistan and externally about the debt trap that is coming down the pike in the not-too-distant future. But setting that aside, he spoke about how this is a really important relationship, and how again, he used that phrase a couple of times: China has given Pakistan a chance. He wanted to convey the strength in the relationship.

The second country he mentioned was Afghanistan and how it would be very important in his foreign policy to have a better relationship with Afghanistan and to have open borders “like the European Union,” as he put it. That’s a very troubled bilateral relationship. The border, has been a point of conflict and people have been building a fence, so I’m not really sure again where this is going. But I did think it was a positive signal that President Ashraf Ghani has invited Imran Khan to visit.

He mentioned the United States third, speaking about wanting to change the dynamics of the relationship with the United States — that it has been an unbalanced relationship. He wants it to be more mutually reciprocal. He spoke about the fact that the United States provides aid and then wants Pakistan to do what it says. These are longstanding complaints. I am not sure that that materially changes the direction of U.S.-Pakistan ties yet. He also spoke about wanting to improve ties with Iran (interestingly), about having a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, and about wanting to be a peace broker in the Middle East.

Fair: Pervez Musharraf also actually floated the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel. Both sides said: we really don’t need you. I don’t know if you noticed this, but the Israeli press took some interest in Imran Khan’s election. But Khan, despite his first wife being Jewish, has also made a number of nasty antisemitic statements as well. What Israeli journalists want to know is: is there any possibility that Khan would reopen Musharraf’s initiative to consider normalizing ties?

Pande: On India, Khan did say that if India takes one step, Pakistan will take two. So you could see a handshake or something if the two leaders meet somewhere. However, for India, things will not change till some action is taken against terrorism and jihad, and so even if there’s a handshake or a smile at the U.N. General Assembly or one of the SCO summits, things are really not going to change.

I don’t think they will change with the others either. With Afghanistan, he may again meet President Ghani, but will the Pakistan Army really give up on what it’s doing in Afghanistan? Khan has referred to the Afghan Taliban as freedom fighters and as people he didn’t really see as doing anything wrong. So even if he has changed his views, will he be able to do something or move beyond the limited space that a Pakistani Prime Minister has in deciding foreign policy? I don’t know.

If he does really face the corruption which he wants to fight, that will come back to bite him. For every Pakistani civilian Prime Minister, corruption doesn’t really matter as long as they’re with the military. Corruption matters when they’re against the military. Nawaz Sharif was fine all these decades. There’s a problem with him only when he turned against what the military was doing. And I don’t think Imran Khan will be able to change domestic politics, fight against corruption, and change foreign policy, without stepping beyond the boundary that the military establishment has set for him.

OR: What is the current state of Pakistan’s economy?

Fair: Pakistan has this modus operandi where the Pakistan Army takes the largest share from the budget without ever having to justify it before Parliament in any significant way. It then relies upon IMF bailouts to keep the rest of the country afloat. The Americans will continue supporting these IMF bailouts because we believe that Pakistan is too dangerous to fail. What this really does is it lubricates a friction that would ordinarily arise between the people who’ve been literally colonized by an Army that hogs all the resources (despite having started a number of wars without winning a single one of them).

What should be confronting American policy makers, but I fear isn’t for a variety of reasons (partly because of the current regime in the White House), is that we’re on autopilot with the IMF. We worry that Pakistan is too dangerous to fail. I don’t think it will fail. But by being there to underwrite another IMF bailout, we have incentivized Pakistan to continue over-consuming Chinese debt. This is going to eventually put us in a really interesting dilemma where the American taxpayer who largely contributes to the IMF is essentially going to be subsidizing these China-Pakistan Economic Corridor loans.

If we don’t continue writing those IMF checks, we may very well see a situation in Pakistan that we have seen elsewhere in the region — in Djibouti; in Hambantota in Sri Lanka; in Malaysia; in Myanmar. These loans the Chinese are writing have no basis in the market. They’re completely opaque. The amount is set by the Chinese government. They write the loan. They send their own contractors to do the work. Then when the projects are built at this inflated price, the countries in question can’t service those loans.

What the Chinese have essentially said is, “Fine, you can’t pay for this. Just give us the land. Give us a 99-year lease or some variant thereof. Let our companies own a majority share in running, for example, the port.” If we don’t continue writing these IMF checks, the alternative is that we essentially have what we have at Hambantota, which is a sovereign Chinese island on the Arabian Sea. These are bad options.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it out there that the United States will not support an IMF bailout simply to pay back China. But money is fungible. Just like, for example, the Coalition Support Fund. Those monies are fungible. So in a very direct way, we are subsidizing the things that we hate most: nuclear weapons and terrorism.

Pande: Why is it that Pakistan is either dependent and has to go for the 12th or 13th time to the IMF for a bailout or is dependent on CPEC money or on the $45 billion which the U.S. has given in the last five decades? The reason is that, over the years, Pakistani governments have really not paid attention to economics. They’ve not really instituted the institutional changes in their economic structure to enable Pakistan to use its big population and the fact that it does have certain industries like textiles to move forward.

I’ll give one example. Pakistan has a water scarcity and electricity problem. Pakistanis will say the reason we have the problem is that India and Pakistan signed the Indus Waters Treaty and India holds back water. No. Pakistan has really never built a dam system to conserve water or to be able to direct water towards agriculture and electricity.

From the 1990’s onward, civilian governments in Pakistan have repeatedly tried to encourage foreign investors to come in and set up power plants, but every time the government was changed, the previous plans were discarded, companies were forced to leave, and they lost money. So you haven’t really built an institutional structure. You don’t really tax your people. You prefer to blame a civilian government or the past government, and you adopt populist policies. How are you going to change?

I’m just jumping in with some numbers. We’re talking about the whole economic issue and all the domestic issues. Pakistan is suffering from massive urban unemployment, rural underemployment, and low per-capita income. Over 60 percent of Pakistan’s population lives on less than $2 a day. Electricity rates are abysmal. 40 percent of Pakistan’s population cannot read or write including 57 percent of Pakistan’s adult population above the age of 15, 31 percent of all Pakistani men and 45 percent of Pakistani women. Pakistan is home to the third-largest illiterate population globally.

However, Pakistan is the sixth-largest nation in the world by population and has the sixth-largest army. It ranks at number 25 among the world’s countries by size of GDP on the purchasing power parity basis, and at number 42 in terms of nominal GDP. Although the country has an impressive nuclear arsenal, it has the smallest economy of any country that has tested nuclear weapons thus far with the exception of North Korea.

OR: How would you all assess the broader health of Pakistan’s political institutions particularly vis-à-vis its military?

Ayres:  I think virtually all observers of Pakistan (including people in Pakistan) were really encouraged in 2013 when the country had its first peaceful transition of power from one civilian government to a second civilian government. Pakistan has been plagued by this problem of an overweening military, having had a military government in power for half the country’s existence.

Having this transition from one civilian government to the next was really important in 2013. I think up until, let’s say, maybe about a year and a half ago, things looked like it was heading towards a second transition of power from one civilian government to another. Now, with this election, I think it’s fair to say that all the problems with the pre-poll rigging and the very severe problems with the actual poll counting specifically cast a real shadow over this election. You can’t really say that democracy has further deepened in Pakistan with this election.

Again you can understand some of the appeal of Imran Khan and his campaign against dynasties, against corruption, but the issue of the role of the military in stacking the deck and then playing an actual active role on the day of the poll itself is a worrying sign for whether Pakistan can move forward on deepening civilian authority in the country.

Pande: Around 371,000-plus military personnel were deployed during Pakistan’s election, which is three times the number that were deployed in the last elections. If you look at reports, especially by the European Union, they actually spoke about what they saw as military personnel questioning which people voted and keeping their parallel tabulation about who people were voting for. This is not something which is positive.

Fair: One of the warning signs that we were heading into yet a further entrenched civil-military crisis is getting rid of the Eighteenth Amendment. The Eighteenth Amendment has a number of provisions, the most important of which to the Pakistan Army is this thing called 58-2(b), which allowed the President to prorogue the National Assembly as well as the Provincial Assemblies.

This was the easiest tool for the Army to get rid of a government with which it had objections. Without that instrument, it has had to innovate alternative mechanisms of disempowering elected officials most notably through street dramas, but most importantly through the Supreme Court.

OR: What are the things that outside analysts consistently get wrong about this election?

Ayres: The big misconception seems to be that there is a playboy cricketer who’s now been elected Prime Minister. That may have been who Khan was two-and-a-half decades ago, but just is not who he is today. As far as I know, he’s aligned himself with some very conservative religious forces. I think we need to look at who he has been in the last decade to get signs of who he actually will be as a leader.

Fair: I am tired of hearing commentators say that Imran Khan won the election. If anyone won the election, it was the Army.

Pande: This belief that you’ll find somebody who was a non-politician entering politics, and therefore, he or she will be able to totally change the entire institutional structure and rid the country of dynastic politics or corruption — that doesn’t really happen. So that is one problem. The second belief that his closeness to the military will let him go about policymaking more easily is also, I think, a fallacy.

Ispahani: The fact was this election was not free and fair. All the media, political parties, the PPP, PML-N, ANP have all come out and said this election was not free and fair. So therefore, Mr. Khan and Pakistan are starting out already on a very weak wicket, to use a cricketing term.

I think that analysts in America who seem to want to give India and Pakistan parity on a lot of issues have to realize India os slow, bumbling, and bureaucratic, but still a democracy. Pakistan, with this election, has actually moved very, very far away from democracy. It’s a very sad day for Pakistan and for Pakistan’s neighbors. I pity the United States, which has been one of Pakistan’s biggest backers.