For those watching the results of Pakistan’s elections from the U.S., the parallels were striking. A wealthy sports icon turned politician who constantly reminds the country’s elite they don’t know the real Pakistan, Imran Khan’s rise to power is a replay of America’s 2016 reckoning with Donald Trump and the anti-establishment wave he rode to the White House.
So far, the reaction to Khan’s electoral victory in Pakistan has been mixed: jubilant celebrations by supporters of his PTI party, and calls of foul play and military interference from every other major political party contesting the elections.
But while it seems clear that Pakistan is in for a prolonged period of domestic instability, the impact on the country’s foreign relations is less clear. The party has never before been in power and until the new government appoints its cabinet and outlines its 100-day plan, foreign partners will be uncertain as to what direction the government will take regarding its priorities.
The United States, however, already has a leg up—since Khan’s rise to power resembles Trump’s own political trajectory in so many ways.
Pakistanis probably don’t want to hear that Imran Khan is their Donald Trump. But the common threads between the two men just might help a bilateral relationship that, in the face of major policy disagreements, often depends on strong links between leaders at the highest levels in both governments.
Taking Them Seriously
Many have recognized the similarities between Khan and Trump. In retrospect, I first saw it up close on a hot summer night in 2010 when I found myself at a house party in an upscale suburb of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
Scattered about the large minimalist-style villa were women in flowing tunics carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, men in silk ascots holding glasses of Johnny Walker Blue Label, chain-smoking teens, and foreign diplomats. A glamorous woman sat languidly on a divan in the center of the room. Someone whispered to me, “she’s dating Imran Khan…and she’s married.”
Who knows if it was true, but the fidelity of the statement mattered less than its irony. Former cricketer Khan was once known as a party-loving playboy who eventually married Jemima Goldsmith, a British heiress with Jewish heritage. Now Khan was a pious Muslim and conservative politician who rejected Western values. Khan’s transformation was still never fully accepted as authentic by Pakistan’s political elite, who routinely indulged in gossip about his playboy ways and religious hypocrisy—for instance, the woman on the divan. And despite his celebrity status, clean financial dealings, and extensive humanitarian work, Khan wasn’t entirely taken seriously as a politician. Instead, his critics were out to prove he was a fake and in many cases, stupid. Sound familiar?
Indeed, ever since Khan entered politics in 1996, American policymakers and analysts have acknowledged his appeal but routinely dismissed his political significance. They instead focused on his sympathetic rhetoric toward extremists, which earned him the nickname “Taliban Khan.” For example, in 2012 after the Taliban shot 14-year old activist Malala Yousafzai in the head, Khan refused to condemn them by name. During a 2014 Pakistani government effort to build national consensus on a statement declaring the Taliban an enemy of Pakistan and Islam, Khan called the group “our brothers” and “our own people.”
The conclusions reached at an Islamabad house party years ago came rushing back to me this week as the election results trickled in. Not taking Khan seriously will have an impact within Pakistan—but also in the United States, where few know Khan personally, understand the PTI agenda, or are connected with many of Khan’s advisers and confidantes.
But if Khan can appeal to Donald Trump, it might not matter that the lower ranks are not talking to each other. Both men are impulsive and brash, former celebrities turned politicians. They travel in elite social circles but are still considered political outsiders with controversial views about the world. They rose to power with the help of populist anti-establishment rhetoric that resonated with a segment of the electorate that felt ignored by mainstream politicians.
Khan’s chances of further appealing to Trump may be helped along by the fact that they both face threats to their electoral legitimacy; frequently encounter the repercussions of their playboy pasts; and have never been accepted into politics despite their involvement over the years.
Both have limited (Khan) to zero (Trump) governing experience. While Khan has been involved in national level politics before, he has never previously held a cabinet post, let alone formed a national government. While he has some experience governing as a member of the National Assembly representing the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since 2013, Khan’s constituent base was not representative of Pakistan’s national diversity. It comprised mostly of Pashtun Muslims supportive of his conservative views towards women and religious minorities.
Khan pushed the same views on the campaign trail, but now in power, will he ramp them up or abandon them for more inclusive policies that resonate with the rest of the country? Like Trump, it is hard to ascertain how Khan intends to translate his campaign promises into concrete actions.
From Individual Relationship to Diplomatic Relations
Both Khan and Trump share a bluntness in their political speech and a fearlessness of the implications of it. Khan has lambasted the Americans for conducting drone strikes and committing “butchery” in the country and he called NATO a group of “western liberals thirsty for blood.” Trump may very well appreciate Khan’s critique of NATO; less so his take on the United States.
It’s highly probable that Trump won’t even notice Khan enough to form a bond with him or to see him as an adversary. All actions of the Trump administration to date suggest that while it perceives Pakistan as a vital national security issue, developing a deep and comprehensive relationship is not in the cards. This is mostly because the United States continues to view South Asia through two more important policy areas: the war in Afghanistan and the bilateral relationship with India. With regards to both, Pakistan remains a problematic partner in the opinion of U.S. officials. For America, Pakistan is a problem to be fixed, not a country to be engaged. Such a limited perspective almost negates any chance Khan will have to connect with Trump.
However, therein lies the risk. That the bilateral relationship will most likely not be cultivated at the highest levels means that when conflicts emerge, they will be all the harder to resolve. Veering off into a war of words on Twitter could be just the beginning.
One day Trump may reprise a version of his New Year’s day tweet in which he said Pakistani leaders “have given us nothing but lies and deceit.” Or he may lump Pakistan into the list of “shithole countries” he doesn’t want immigrants from. When that day comes, Khan will publicly defend Pakistan’s integrity and sovereignty and will have no problem being just as blunt and outspoken as Trump. Trump will probably reply with an early morning all-caps tweet. We know this drill.
As a new prime minister, Khan will politically benefit from such grandstanding against an unpopular United States. But the bones of the relationship will suffer. Should the two countries go down this path, bureaucrats in their respective governments will have to work extra hard to keep the relationship intact behind the scenes but with little hope of policy progress.
Pushing policy forward requires both bureaucratic power and the political will of senior officials. In the absence of one, the other will suffer. We should all hope that Khan and Trump hit it off. There is much work to be done in sorting out differences between the United States and Pakistan on the Haqqani Network (the Afghan guerrilla insurgent group), stability on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and reconciliation with the Taliban.
Unfortunately, this dynamic in which U.S. political leadership does not match up with the policy aims of its bureaucracy is exactly the predicament so many other countries now face when it comes to the U.S. being an increasingly unreliable partner. Khan will just be the newest player joining the game.