August 2, 2018
Imran Khan has been referred to as Pakistan’s Donald Trump, an apt comparison on one level given they are both mercurial, egoistical, nationalistic and demagogic. However, one main difference is that the playboy cricketer turned Islamic firebrand colluded with the deep state to win his election. Although Rawalpindi has always called the shots, having a prime minister entirely beholden to the military will likely make Pakistan an even bigger threat to Afghanistan – unless the laws of nature are magically suspended.
With respect to Afghanistan’s national interest, it is difficult to find anything positive to say about Pakistan electing a man nicknamed Taliban Khan who has mainstreamed jihadi extremist factions and supports EU-like “open borders.” Not to mention that Khan is on record as saying the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is a legitimate jihad justified by Islamic law.
In any event, no matter how one feels, Khan will have an immediate impact on stability in Afghanistan by how he reacts to the suddenly blossoming peace process and, long-term, how he manages Pakistan’s relationship with India.
In the worst case scenario, Khan turns out to be the Rawalpindi puppet and radical appeaser everyone expects. If so, he will soon find himself embracing an open border policy alright – one that makes it easier for “Good” Taliban types to slip into Afghanistan and launch destabilizing attacks before returning to their snug sanctuaries inside Pakistan’s nether regions.
Khan will discover that the pace of the attacks will largely be driven by the state of the alleged talks. On August 2, Tolo News reported that Afghan officials believe progress has been made after direct discussions that took place in Doha recently between U.S. diplomats and members of the Taliban.
The only problem is that Pakistan’s conspicuous absence from the proceedings may mean Khan’s first task will be to play the role of spoiler.
Unfortunately, the United States and Pakistan will both be key players in any end game in Afghanistan, so their relationship matters especially in light of the weak government in Kabul that is more than willing to outsource the country’s self-determination.
U.S.-Pakistani relations are as bad as ever, but many feel Khan can take the relationship to new lows. State Department and Pentagon officials are worried because Khan seems even more resistant to crack down on terrorist groups than his predecessors were. After Washington froze military aid earlier this year, Khan called for cutting NATO supply lines and expelling U.S. personnel.
If Pakistan is not injected into the negotiations process in short order and feels alienated by the United States and/or its client in Kabul – one can certainly expect to see some high-profile attacks inside Afghanistan in the near future.
Yet, above all, it is Khan’s approach to India that will determine whether conditions can be sown for there to even be the possibility of achieving long-term stability in Afghanistan.
There will be zero stability without some semblance of rapprochement between New Delhi and Islamabad because Pakistani chieftains will never give up their strategic depth assets – such as the Haqqani Network – so long as the existential fear of India runs so deep.
Many doubt Khan will be able to take baby steps towards normalizing relations with Pakistan’s giant of a neighbor – even if he sincerely wants to. Pakistan is the Muslim version of 18th century Prussia: While most states have an army the Pakistani army has a state and although some leaders have tried to enforce civilian control, the military has been in charge ever since the country was founded in 1947.
More importantly, the military has honed Islamic extremism as a strategic weapon – a foreign policy tool. And Khan, who has fed off Islamic fundamentalism for political gain exemplified by his support for anti-blasphemy laws – will likely fuel the very jihadi groups that Pakistan’s military and intelligence community use as pawns.
However, there is one long shot miracle in all of this that, ironically, will hinge on Khan’s close relationship with Rawalpindi.
Attempts by previous leaders to mend ties with India have always been undone by Pakistan’s generals often because the politicians failed to get their approval. Can Khan persuade these generals that there is little risk in at least attempting a thaw? Perhaps after granting Khan a permission slip and having a stake in the process the military will be less likely to sabotage it.
First we must assume that Khan legitimately wants to improve relations with New Delhi and then we must assume he has the political acumen and dexterity to pull off a diplomatic balancing act that would make the likes of Kissinger nervous. The upshot for Afghanistan, of course, would be Pakistan taking its foot off the destabilization pedal.
The impossible mission, if the cricketer one day chooses to accept it, will most certainly require a little Trump-like instability and unpredictability – even if what looks like political courage and daring is really driven by raw narcissism. But have we not seen this in Khan? Besides, if Donald Trump can hold a summit with the leader of North Korea anything is possible on this earth.