Pakistan’s Political Backsliding: What is the US Perspective?

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In the last two years, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan has been tested by a number of obstacles. The US strategy to Pakistan has been redefined to limited engagement and the new equilibrium is distinct from the one that existed in the past. In managing the international relations Pakistan has remained within the spotlight due to domestic issues. Pakistan has been facing a political turmoil since the beginning of 2023. However, there has been a visible absence of comment from the White House.

The understanding of political backsliding in Pakistan requires the decoding of internal incidents from the last few months. The Pakistani military maintains a significant amount of authority and influence in the political system of the country. This influence is frequently bolstered by their allies in the country’s judicial system, which has a propensity to support military commanders in times of crisis. Imran’s initial supporters primarily viewed him as a figure of optimism. His anti-American speech was successful in earning him the trust of the mass and the military to such an extent that it finally assisted him in securing the position of Prime Minister. But as Imran’s relation with the military weakened, his dismissal as Prime Minister of Pakistan in April 2022 was followed by a vote of no confidence by Parliament. This caused a political realignment among Pakistanis that created ripple effects all over the country.

In the May of 2023, Imran Khan was jailed and the Supreme Court overturned his imprisonment on corruption accusations. Following his arrest, there was a mass resistance and demonstrations in his support. With the political turmoil ongoing, the rivalry continued to brew between current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Imran Khan that appeared to be intensifying. For decades, military officials have had sway over political leaders, and they exerted significant influence over Pakistan’s economic sectors. Because of this, the powerful military of the country might be tempted to participate in the political process before the fall elections. They are predicting Imran Khan’s win with a massive popular support. This ongoing political turmoil has increased the chance of an imminent failure in payment of a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This would put Pakistan’s chances of getting longer-term international support in jeopardy. Also, inflation and interest rates are both on the rise as a direct result of the currency’s one-third decline against the dollar. In the midst of an economic crisis that requires the entire attention of Pakistan’s leaders, the country is currently in a precarious situation because it is dealing with a political crisis that pits opposition leader Imran Khan against the government and the military.

Before this crisis in February 2023, Counselor for the State Department Derek Chollet and a delegation of senior officials from the United States traveled to Pakistan to show their support for the bilateral relationship between the two countries. The conference was held under the U.S.-Pakistan Trade and Investment Framework, and it took place during the same month as the Pakistani minister of commerce visited Washington. During their trip to Pakistan, a congressional delegation from the United States led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer met with Pakistani officials to discuss a “broad-based partnership” that covered regional security, commerce, and investment. But when this political turmoil started, US was intentionally silent.

There are several factors involved to understand this deliberate oversight from the United States. Firstly, it is keeping a safe distance on the worsening political situation in Pakistan. In 2022, the United States was unexpectedly and unfavorably pushed into the domestic politics of Pakistan. Imran blamed his resignation via a vote of no confidence on a U.S. “regime change” scheme. The narrative caused friction in the United States’ relationship with Pakistan for several months in 2022. This was due to the fact that supporters of Imran interpreted any interaction between the United States and the new leadership in Islamabad as evidence that the conspiracy was real. US wants to refute Imran’s claim that the administration of Joe Biden played a significant part in toppling his government. So, Washington has been careful to avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as being antagonistic against Imran. Secondly, the attitude taken by the Biden administration toward China had put restrictions on US- Pakistan relations.

When Pakistan’s government first proposed a geo-economic reset in early 2021, the country was in a totally different position. The alignment of Pakistan and China created new opportunities for geopolitical competition arising from the internal political crises in Pakistan. Pakistan is referred to as China’s “iron brother” for a number of reasons. It is a well-known fact that Pakistani leaders has evolved into the most prominent defender of China. While Imran was in power, he took advantage of opportunities to work against Western interests. Pakistani leaders applauded China for its continued commitment to Pakistan as well as its continued economic development. Pakistan is also dependent on China for its military equipment since China assisted Pakistan in the production of locally sourced weapons. Thirdly, Biden administrations heated battle with China and focus in the Indo-Pacific region had brought out policy changes of US in developing cooperation with India. India could be a better ally in countering Chinese aggression and assertiveness in this region and also would protect US vision for the Indo-pacific.

Due to geopolitical competition, China and Pakistan have been India’s main adversary. India joined the Indo–Pacific Strategy and QUAD initiatives. All these security alliances have not included Pakistan and US priorities shifted away from Pakistan. Fourthly, Pakistan’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine war, Imran’s visit to Moscow immediately after the war and showing neutrality in the United Nations related to this is war caused dissatisfaction in the US. Imran publicly condemned the United States and the West. Also, Pakistan pursued a policy that was more independent from that of the United States. Lastly, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave a forceful response to a US envoy and strongly warned not to provide unsolicited advice on Pakistan’s internal issues. However, the State Department maintained its position of neutrality by stating that these comments did not represent US foreign policy.

US has always been vocal about political situations in South Asia and Southeast Asia. US had urged immediate action in cases of military coup in Myanmar, Sudan’s political unrest favoring the plight of people. Despite the severe political crisis in Pakistan, US has maintained a silence on autocratic and repressive politics in Pakistan. The United States has refrained from taking sides in the political conflict that pitted Imran Khan against a coalition government comprised of more than a dozen political groups and the powerful military of the country in question. Every time the subject was brought up during an official briefing in Washington, the response emphasized two points. The United States did not favor either side in this conflict, and it desired that the crisis would be addressed that is consistent with the constitution of Pakistan. Ironically, while former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was in power, the US administration was allegedly against the Imran government. It appears that the United States has reduced its focus on Pakistan due to the apparent interests with India. With the continued silence in this political crisis, does the policy of the White House reflect that Pakistan is not a priority or an unconditional ally for US interests or does the US find it safe not to talk about the issues of political repression, democratic backsliding and eroding political institutions in Pakistan?

– Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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