The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
Six months ago, Imran Khan, the charismatic former cricket star, was elected prime minister of Pakistan. At first his victory seemed like a win for the military in its decades-long struggle for power with Pakistan’s civilian politicians—a contest that has kept the country perpetually weak and unstable. International observers and Khan’s domestic political rivals had accused the Pakistani military of meddling in the election to benefit Khan and his party, the Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI). And in fact, the military likely did attempt to tilt the election toward Khan, via a crackdown on the media and harassment and intimidation, preferring the PTI to the rival Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), whose leader, the jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had become increasingly willing to defy the military during his last years in office.
But even if Khan rose to power with the aid of Pakistan’s generals, he is not their puppet. During the campaign, he showed himself to be a skillful politician who could use ambitious promises of reform and development to knit together a broad coalition in a country where politics often fractures on ethnic and provincial lines. But although Khan’s political savvy (and the military’s support) put him at an advantage as he began his term, a debt crisis and a fierce political opposition have largely prevented him from implementing his agenda. Beyond an unexpected crackdown on fundamentalists, Khan has yet to deliver on any of his ambitious campaign promises. And his alliance with the military may cause him grief going forward.
Khan campaigned on a classic populist anticorruption platform. He presented himself and the PTI as outsiders who could provide a fresh alternative to the country’s two established political parties, the PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party, both of them led by family dynasties and beset with corruption and reputations for misgovernment. Khan’s anticorruption platform and personal celebrity appealed to an electorate widely disillusioned with the status quo. The PTI won close to 32 percent of the vote, outstripping the second-place PML-N’s 24 percent. Perhaps more important, Khan drew support from many different segments of the society, including older liberals who remembered him as a glamorous cricket star, voters who favored the military, and, critically, Pakistan’s conservative youth (64 percent of the population is under 30).
His success in office will depend on his ability to deliver on sweepingly ambitious promises of reform. Shortly after the election, Khan announced that he would make Pakistan into an Islamic welfare state based on the Medina of the Prophet Muhammad’s time, with improved public health care and education, better jobs for young people, and a safety net for the poor. Many lauded Khan, deservedly, for introducing issues such as maternal health and child malnutrition into the national conversation. Past Pakistani governments, by contrast, were content to promise infrastructure and patronage for their supporters, at the expense of marginalized groups (especially women and children) and broad-based socioeconomic development.
Such a program, however, is easier to describe than to realize. Neither Khan nor the majority of his ministers have any experience running a government. And before embarking on their development agenda, they have been forced to contend with Pakistan’s crippling foreign debt. Khan campaigned vehemently against accepting loans from the International Monetary Fund, but his reluctance to take IMF money has left him with no obvious solution to the debt crisis he inherited from his predecessors. In recent months, he has managed to secure $12 billion in funding from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But Pakistan’s economy is nonetheless in a downward spiral: inflation has risen and utility prices have ballooned. The average Pakistani thus takes little comfort in Khan’s pro-poor rhetoric. And the reforms that Khan will need to implement to begin fixing the economy, such as widening Pakistan’s tax base and raising utility prices, will be politically unpopular.
Similarly, on health and education, Khan can boast few substantive accomplishments over the past few months. The design of Pakistan’s education and health-care systems, which devolve most power to the provinces, means that Khan can control education and health-care policy only in the two provinces his party governs, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In Punjab, Khan has taken at least one positive, visible step: beginning the rollout of a health insurance program targeting the poorest of the poor. Yet his chief minister for Punjab, Sardar Usman Buzdar, is widely considered ineffective, dampening the prospects for genuine reform.
The average Pakistani thus takes little comfort in Khan’s pro-poor rhetoric.
On religious matters, few expected Khan to deliver anything positive. As an opposition politician, he was popular with Pakistan’s religious right—and unpopular with its liberal intellectuals—for his commitment to the centrality of Islam in Pakistan, his occasional support for peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, and his call for strict enforcement of the country’s blasphemy laws. Yet since entering office, he has taken tentative steps toward a more liberal approach on religious issues, although this has not yet coalesced into a coherent policy. His Islamist street cred allows him to take such steps. But his newfound liberalism may also signify that his past conservative stances were the product of political opportunism and that now that he is in power, he is unwilling to tolerate an Islamist threat.
Khan’s new stance became clear during the Asia Bibi case. On October 31, Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman whom a lower court had sentenced to death for blasphemy. The acquittal outraged many of Pakistan’s Islamists. That night, Khan gave a nationally televised speech in which he defended the Supreme Court’s verdict in strong, unequivocal terms. In doing so, he took charge of the narrative on an issue where the state has typically been fearful and silent and has often let fundamentalist rhetoric prevail. Yet days after the speech, Khan appeared to reverse himself: faced with protests led by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a fundamentalist political party, his government promised it would seek to prevent Asia Bibi from leaving the country. That promise appeared to be a tactic—once the protesters had disbanded, Khan began a crackdown, detaining hundreds, including the TLP’s leader, Khadim Rizvi. Many of the detainees are still in custody. When the Supreme Court recently upheld its judgment of Bibi’s case, declaring her free to leave the country if she wished, the government was able to avert protests through further arrests.
No one should expect Pakistan to become completely tolerant on religion during Khan’s time in office. But the prime minister’s support for the court ruling in the Bibi case was significant, given the state’s traditional willingness to cede control of religious issues to hard-liners. If Khan is able to reassure his conservative supporters that he understands their concerns while marginalizing genuine fundamentalists, he may be able to bring balance to the struggle between Pakistan’s liberals and conservatives—or as much balance as possible, given the relentless Islamization of the country since independence. That would likely mean a continuing commitment to Islam, but one combined with relief for those, mainly religious minorities, who have suffered under the blasphemy laws enacted in the regressive 1980s. For Pakistan, that would be a step forward.
As with nearly all Pakistani civilian leaders, Khan’s ability to succeed as prime minister will depend in large part on his relationship with the military. While civilians are responsible for day-to-day governing, the military expects little interference from the government on foreign policy, especially toward India and Afghanistan. Khan’s actions indicate that he will abide by this understanding. On India, he is treading lightly. Although he wants to improve his country’s relations with Mumbai, he knows that a real rapprochement is unlikely, especially given that India will hold an election this spring and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s stance on Pakistan has grown only more strident. Khan has instead opted for symbolic moves, such as announcing a “peace corridor” in December to allow Indian Sikhs to visit their temples in Pakistan without a visa. On Afghanistan, Khan supports the current U.S. effort to hold peace talks with the Taliban, consistent with his longtime stance in favor of a political settlement and U.S. withdrawal. At the same time, he has officially argued, in line with the military’s position, that a sudden U.S. withdrawal would lead to chaos in Pakistan.
But although Khan seems to be in lockstep with the military on foreign policy, this alliance may end up undermining him domestically. Media freedom in Pakistan has taken a hit during his time in office. The official narrative is that lower advertising revenues have contributed to layoffs of journalists and shutdowns of TV channels. Yet the only newspapers and TV channels that have suffered are those critical of Khan and the military and supportive of Sharif and the PML-N. Similarly, the military is driving the continued censorship of news about, and direct repression of, the Pashtun rights movement, which calls out the military’s abuses—including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings—in Pakistan’s northwest. This week, after a crackdown on protesters in Islamabad, Khan took a stand and ordered the release of an activist supporting the movement, but a number of other protest leaders remain under arrest.
The military’s support lends Khan—and thus Pakistan’s democracy—much-needed stability in the short term, but his alliance with the country’s generals is also leading him to undermine (or allow the military to undermine) the country’s media and ethnic protest movements. These trends do not bode well for the health of Pakistan’s democracy. Khan, however, has no easy choices: he can either abide by this alliance, buying his government stability in exchange for enabling the military’s illiberalism, or he can stand up to the military and lose stability. He will choose the former.
His success as a prime minister will depend on what he does with that stability. So far, hobbled by the debt crisis, he hasn’t done much. He has accomplished little to improve social services or the economic lot of ordinary Pakistanis, and their patience is starting to wear thin. Having secured some funding from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, he may start to find his footing on the economy, although he will have to do much more than he has during his first six months in order to make a positive impact. But on religion, where no one expected him to deliver, Khan has—at least marginally, and at least for now—helped move the needle toward a more tolerant Pakistan. That is less than many hoped from Khan. But it is no small feat.