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Imran Khan is expected to be the prime minister of Pakistan with governments either led by his own party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or parties sympathetic to it in three out of four provinces, including Punjab. Accordingly, many say he will have himself to blame if he does not deliver on his campaign promises. The political situation he is walking into, however, will be treacherous. At the very least, the current structure of power and political culture in Pakistan are inimical to national interest. Imran Khan’s agenda of ‘change’ for a ‘New Pakistan’ will be under constant challenge. He will need all his determination, character and sense of mission to overcome an array of obstacles.

While compromise and consensus-building are essential to any political strategy, beyond a point they become roadblocks to aspirations and missions. Imran Khan will have to live with intense scrutiny of every step he takes. He must lead in Parliament and address the nation regularly on pressing issues.

Foreign policy is the external aspect of national policy. It is a country’s first line of defence and the principal promoter of its interests abroad. It seeks to minimise risks and threats to the security and economic well-being of the country while maximising its policy options and opportunities. It bridges the gap between national capabilities and national priorities. It is not designed to sell home-made, ill-conceived policies abroad. It cannot project a good image of a bad state of affairs.

The prime minister of Pakistan, who is responsible for all national policies including foreign policy, must – today more than ever before – also be a foreign policy prime minister. Pakistan has only had one such prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He inspired and, in turn, was hugely assisted by an able and well-motivated foreign service.

Imran Khan must start his foreign policy agenda with India and here is why.

An adversary is sometimes more important than a friend. Moreover, the majority of Pakistan’s population lives in proximity to the border with India. It is also the only country with which Pakistan has fought wars and it targets Pakistan with its nuclear weaponry. For Pakistan, India is our only potential nuclear target. The costs for Pakistan of its relations with India exceed those of its relations with any other country. How to significantly reduce these costs without compromising Pakistan’s principled stand on major outstanding issues, especially the ‘core issue’ of Jammu and Kashmir, remains a principal challenge for our foreign policy.

War of any kind is not an option for a Kashmir settlement. The United Nations (UN) resolutions must remain the basis of Pakistan’s Kashmir diplomacy although they cannot in reality deliver a settlement. In fact, there is no short-term solution for Jammu and Kashmir. The international community, including the UN and all major powers, will not force any Kashmir settlement upon India that is unacceptable to it. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are also irrelevant to the search for a just Kashmir settlement.  

Pakistan cannot stay on a transformational economic growth path of an average of 8.9 per cent per annum over the next three decades in a state of tension and confrontation with India — a country seven times its size in population, economy and military strength. Accordingly, the search for a broader and long-term strategy for a Kashmir settlement is inevitable. Any settlement will ultimately entail a principled compromise and it must pass the test of acceptability to the people of Kashmir. Until that time, the United Nations resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir must be the basis of Pakistan’s stand if it is to remain a relevant party to a settlement process.

This requires developing a strong working relationship with India, including a comprehensive and structured dialogue that addresses the core concerns of both countries. This must include the management of nuclear threats. On this basis, a whole range of revived and new confidence and security building measures (CSBMs) can provide a good start, beginning possibly with an invitation to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other heads of state or government from the member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) to attend the prime minister’s inauguration.

Such an approach will be vehemently opposed by the powers that be inside Pakistan. There is also no guarantee that India will immediately reciprocate Pakistan’s initiatives. Public opinion can be deliberately inflamed. Incidents can happen to thwart such initiatives. Caution, consultation and preparation will be essential to prevent them. Even more so will be leadership.

While India is necessarily a longer-term challenge, Afghanistan represents a problem that should not even exist. Mutual trust can be easily built if Pakistan’s policies towards Afghanistan are wise, generous and sincere. There is no historical basis for animus and hostility. There is no reason for Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy to be ‘India-centric’. No Afghan will accept that. The Taliban can also never be a strategic asset for Pakistan if we are to meet the challenges and imperatives of the 21st century. Yes, the Americans need to leave Afghanistan and, yes, the Islamic State is a greater threat to regional stability than the Taliban but the Taliban need to morph into a credible interlocutor for credible peace in Afghanistan. 

Pakistan should participate in Afghan peace talks without holding a brief for the Taliban. Nor should Pakistan allow its territory to be used to influence the balance of power inside Afghanistan. That only opens the floodgates to Afghan resentment and Indian influence in Afghanistan. Our Afghanistan policy has been short-sighted and self-defeating. It has been formulated in the dark by people who know little about Afghan history and care less about the Afghan people. Imran Khan will have to ensure that no aspect of Pakistan’s foreign policy remains the preserve of faceless forces.

Let Afghanistan choose its own friends; it will not choose against Pakistan unless Pakistan’s follies force it to, which has happened ever since the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Within these parameters, specific issues, including transit trade, border management and refugees, can be easily addressed and a detailed strategy to develop substantial and wide-ranging bilateral ties can be devised. Historically inherited issues, such as the differences over the Durand Line, will lose their salience and eventually disappear.

Pakistan also needs to keep in mind that the United States is a global neighbour and will remain the number one military, economic and technological power for the rest of this century. It cannot be a strategic partner of Pakistan because it prefers India. Along with India, it targets the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Nevertheless, predictable, substantive and mutually satisfactory relations with the United States are a priority for Pakistan. The costs of gratuitously annoying it are considerable.

Afghanistan, counterterrorism and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal remain issues of concern for the United States. Without having to bend a knee, these are not insuperable obstacles for Pakistan especially if it rationalises its policies and refrains from playing games unrelated to its national interest. The US policy dictation does not have to be accepted. Nor should Pakistan dress up compliance in the guise of defiance to fool its own people. To have an honest bilateral relationship with the United States should be a sufficient foreign policy goal.

Retaining Chinese confidence in the viability of Pakistan as a strategic partner, however, is a challenge that should not be underestimated. Without good governance and a credible foreign policy, Pakistan will not meet this challenge. CPEC is a golden opportunity, not a magic wand or a free ride. China is shaping up to be the future of Asia. And Pakistan can be a critical part of this transformation provided Imran Khan overcomes critical impediments and lays the foundation for a New Pakistan.

This was originally published in the August 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.