Whatever the prospects of a ‘new’ Pakistan emerging from this week’s general election, expectations of a major shift in the country’s regional policies are likely to be ill-founded. The prime minister-elect, Imran Khan of the Pakistan Justice Party (PTI), in his victory speech on 26 July signalled as much, stressing continuity in foreign policy.
The reasons for this are not hard to establish.
For decades Pakistan’s regional foreign policies vis-à-vis India and Afghanistan have been the preserve of the military and treated as extensions of national security. Attempts by elected governments to craft independent regional policies or initiate dialogue with neighbours, notably India, have entailed heavy penalties.
Indeed, many parties will have drawn lessons from the disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whose efforts to normalize relations with India and end support for Islamic militants in Afghanistan incurred the wrath of the military.
It is no surprise then that the PTI’s manifesto took care to reiterate Pakistan’s demand for a settlement of the Kashmir dispute with India in line with UN resolutions and to avoid issues of bilateral trade or regional connectivity. Overplaying their importance had hastened Sharif’s downfall.
Emboldened by its election victory, a PTI-led government could take some tentative steps towards reducing tension with India – if only to concentrate on its domestic agenda and deliver on the PTI’s ambitious promise of introducing an ‘Islamic welfare state’.
But if so, the new government is unlikely to stray from the rigid parameters set by the military, which remains firmly opposed to any dialogue which seeks to tie bilateral cooperation with India to the issue of Pakistan’s alleged role in sponsoring terrorism in the region.
These parameters could harden if radical Islamist parties – dedicated to conflict with India (through terrorist means if necessary) and which entered the electoral fray for the first time – decide to flex their muscles.
Though terrorist groups such as Lashkar i-Tayyaba (accused of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks), which campaigned under the banner of the Allah o Akbar(God is Great) Movement, performed poorly in the elections, they have long enjoyed the support of the military as reliable proxies against India. And while other parties such as Harkat ul Mujahideen, also designated by the UN as a terrorist organization for its activities in Indian-held Kashmir, chose not to contest the elections, they were actively courted by the PTI during the electoral campaign.
The military’s control over Pakistan’s Afghan policy is also unlikely to be surrendered to the next government. While the PTI supports Afghan sovereignty and has opposed the presence of US forces in Afghanistan, it has been at pains to emphasize its common concern with the military to resist Pakistan’s ‘strategic encirclement’ by means of a Kabul-New Delhi axis.
The PTI’s call for dialogue with the Afghan Taliban also resonates with the position of Pakistan’s military, which has been singularly reluctant to act against Afghan Taliban factions, notably the Haqqani network, or to eliminate their sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Admittedly, the PTI’s conciliatory stance towards the Pakistani Taliban (it donated more than $3 million while in power in Khyber-Pakhtukhwa to the notorious Haqqania religious seminary, headed by a cleric known as the ‘father of the Taliban’) differs from the military, which has waged a fierce campaign against the group. Yet, a PTI-led government is unlikely to risk its fortunes (at least in the short term) by contradicting the military and pressing for talks with the Pakistani Taliban.
The PTI will continue to favour the expansion of relations with China. The party may resent the credit owed to former prime minister Sharif and his party for seeing through China’s commitment in investing billions of dollars in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but a PTI-led government will not raise questions about a venture that enjoys near unanimous support in Pakistan and is stoutly defended by the military.
Despite the PTI’s preference for closer relations with Iran (partly in defiance of the United States, against which the PTI has led a vitriolic campaign), strategic considerations informed by the military’s close security partnership with Saudi Arabia are likely to act as a constraint. In 2015 the military controversially overruled a parliamentary resolution that had rejected a Saudi request to send troops to Yemen, saying it would compromise Pakistan’s future relations with Iran.
Real power in deciding the direction of Pakistan regional policies will continue to rest therefore with the military and not with the next prime minister. That power could deepen in the event of a weak governing coalition or a fractious parliament, which would leave the military even more room to impose its own vision of Pakistan’s regional interests.
Dr Farzana Shaikh, Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme.