Pakistan’s power structure, which in public knowledge has been long dictated by the three A’s, Allah, Army, and America, found itself on the centrestage following the dissolution of the National Assembly (NA) and the dismissal of the opposition-led no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan on 3 April. In line with Khan’s populist, anti-US rhetoric, the motion was revoked by the Deputy Speaker under Article 5, citing disloyalty to the state possibly by opponent lawmakers seeking the removal of the premier through alleged “foreign funding”. The President further dissolved the NA and called for early elections, which are required to be held within 90 days.
Setting the scene for the country’s first foreign policy-driven elections, hours prior to the no-confidence motion, Khan brandished an uncorroborated letter in a rally citing “blatant interference in domestic politics by the United States”, to counter the parliamentary opposition-led no-confidence motion against him. The allegation has been categorically denied by Washington.
As Khan lost the support of the influential military, a few alliance parties and some parliamentarians of his own Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party over the last weeks, he declared that there was a “foreign conspiracy” for his removal. On 3 April, Khan held US Assistant Secretary of State of South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, responsible for sending a “threatening” message through Pakistan's envoy Ambassador, Asad Majeed, to enable his ouster.
Anti-Americanism Meets Street Power Under Imran
While the White House’s dismissal of the allegations is not unprecedented, the narrative lays bare Khan’s tactics of stoking anti-imperialistic public sentiment ahead of the slated polls, given the resonance of anti-Americanism among the populace and the street power of conservative groups, such as the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).
Concurrently, the rhetoric demonstrates Khan’s disregard for the future of Islamabad’s diplomatic ties with Washington, possibly in retaliation to US President Joe Biden’s snubbing, evidenced by his failure to hold a telephonic conversation with Khan since assuming office in January 2021.
In fact, the first consequential friction between the two countries was recorded early in Biden’s tenure, when the Pakistani Supreme Court acquitted the mastermind behind the 2002 kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl on 28 January 2021.
Meanwhile, in September 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken Washington’s decision to reassess its ties with Pakistan, days after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Concurrently, Washington’s reluctance in expanding the bilateral relationship with Islamabad beyond its regional strategic concerns likely played a role in failing to prevent Pakistan from lobbying for the Taliban-appointed administration, dominated by Haqqani Network members. This pro-Taliban stance directly counters Pakistan’s frequent dismissal of China-led crackdown on the Muslim minority Uighur population in the Xinjiang Province. Thus, the steep decline in Washington-Islamabad relations in recent months also stands in contrast to the deepening ties with neighbouring China.
Islamabad-Washington's Rocky Relations Since Biden
Significantly, the legacy of US-Pakistan diplomacy under former US President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden is largely defined by the US operation against 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, the incessant US-led drone operations against the al-Qaeda leadership across the tribal belt of Afghanistan-Pakistan, and Islamabad’s relationship with the Haqqani Network.
Americans have largely seen Islamabad’s double-play in the Afghan war with scepticism. Meanwhile, the US military actions, perceived to be a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, have aggravated the anti-West sentiments among locals.
However, under former US President Donald Trump, the transactional nature of diplomatic ties briefly revived the relationship between the two countries, months after the infamous Twitter spat between the world leaders in 2018. Islamabad’s freeing of Taliban leader Mullah Baradar eventually enabled the Afghanistan peace process in Qatar that began under the Trump-era. The relationship, however, saw a quick deterioration following the regime change, as it plausibly consolidated the perception in the Biden administration that Islamabad’s support to the Taliban enabled US’ defeat in August 2021.
While an administration change in both countries might redefine the future diplomatic ties, under the Biden government, the larger Pakistan foreign policy is expected to be dictated through its association with neighbouring nations: Afghanistan, China and India.
Meanwhile, in the run-up to the elections, Khan will continue to gain maximum political capital by stirring deep-rooted anti-Americanism in the country, which is widely informed by the collateral damage to civilians and social systems due to the West-led Global War on Terror (GWOT).
Pak Army Has Gone Into Damage Control Mode
While the claims of Khan’s allegation remain dubious, his recent move aligns with his traditional Islamist politics aimed at appeasing right-wing voters.
However, to placate the civil administration’s explicit anti-US rhetoric, Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in a speech in Islamabad on 2 April reasserted the long-standing strategic ties with the US, in contrast to the political accusations against Washington.
The establishment's damage control measures reveal the prominent gap between the civil-military positioning and the disparity on foreign policy matters, as also the Army’s efforts to distance itself from PTI-led policies.
Simultaneously, General Bajwa’s attempts to pacify ties shows the military’s independent stance on foreign policy issues in the country.
The measures undertaken by Khan’s administration coincide with Islamabad’s pro-China inclination in the international community and pronounced non-alignment in foreign policies, as seen with the premier’s visit to Moscow on the first day of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.
If the current trajectory of ties fails to improve, the possibility of future sanctions against Pakistani officials over their ties with Taliban members and Beijing officials cannot be ruled out. Such political developments might also hamper the government’s ability to address the country’s dire economic conditions and policies, including the implementation of reforms agreed upon with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
(Aishwaria Sonavane is a geopolitical intel analyst with a focus on Asia. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)