When Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed from office in 2022, he tweeted that his political woes were equivalent to “US backed regime change.” While there was no evidence of this — something to which he eventually admitted — Khan’s stance fell in line with previous statements he had made against Western and US influence over the course of his campaigns.
Khan’s speeches about ridding Pakistan of outside influences and making it a state like the holy city of Madina have made him popular amongst Pakistan’s young people. As a leader, his media campaigns have positioned him as being “anti-west,” which is now the perception most Pakistanis have of him — although reactions to this perception differ greatly.
Mosharraf Zaidi, a senior fellow at Tabadlab, a think tank in Islamabad, says much of Khan’s appeal comes from the fact that struggling with identity is more common than ever in the 21st century. “The thing to remember is why this is so appealing. He hasn’t created it [this anti-west narrative], he’s identified it to appeal to a certain kind of people — people who’ve lived abroad, have been studying abroad, adopted Western sensibilities, and [now] they’ve become conscious of their geographical, ethnic, religious identities and are having trouble reconciling them,” he tells Inkstick.
While Khan’s rhetoric continues to increase his popularity in the country, experts are skeptical about just how revolutionary his impact has been on the country’s actual foreign policy in relation to the countries he is so quick to call out.
During his first year as prime minister, Khan visited President Donald Trump, hoping to get some support on Kashmir and discuss Pakistan’s economic problems. On the campaign trail, Khan had pushed for a more independent Pakistan that would be less reliant on foreign aid and International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans. Khan even praised India for importing Russian oil despite Western pressure. Yet, it seemed he did little to reduce Pakistan’s dependence. In 2019, the IMF approved a $6.5 billion bailout program, one of the largest bailouts that Pakistan has ever received.
For a country that has long survived on foreign aid, the articulation of Pakistan daring to move away from US dependence has created a ripple of emotion.
Khan’s critics have been pointing at his policy U-turns, specifically his change on the IMF, as evidence of his lack of understanding of Pakistan’s economic challenges. According to Zaidi, “Imran Khan doesn’t have a foreign policy. He only has one policy, and that is Imran Khan. He just expects everyone to fit around it. He says Pakistan should be independent, then becomes prime minister and makes Pakistan more dependent, takes more loans than anyone, and hires people who then constantly talk badly about key partners, whether that’s Shireen Mazari, who talks badly about the US or Razzak Dawood, who talks badly about China.”
Analysts are also quick to point out that while Khan wanted to push Pakistan away from the West, he did not do much to push it toward the East. Michael Kugelman, the South Asia Director at the Wilson Center, points out that Khan criticized the opacity of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and questioned the role of Chinese investors. But Pakistan’s unstable economic situation and the importance of a China-Pakistan partnership quickly put an end to all of those criticisms. CPEC was well underway before Khan came to power, but his shift from questioning the project to soliciting Chinese partnership raised eyebrows. For example, by 2021, Khan was assuring Chinese businessmen that they were a “priority” in Pakistan and even talking about how their one-party system is better than electoral democracy. He also established the CPEC authority to accelerate the pace of CPEC-related projects.
With regard to China, Khan has also been criticized for his silence on the Uyghur Muslim crisis while being quite vocal about the plight of Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir. But his support of Kashmir is consistent with past governments and considered a part of Pakistan’s foreign policy. When it comes to China, the narrative has always been that China’s economic importance to Pakistan is simply far too much for a political leader to criticize it. But then the question remains about why Khan has stayed silent on the Rohingya crisis and not spoken out against Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses after becoming prime minister.
More than the Uyghur issue, what Zaidi points out as more problematic is that Khan can’t seem to decide what he wants — or how exactly he wants to advocate for Islam. “Is he pro-Malaysia, Turkey, and Qatar, or is he not? Where does he sit in regard to Saudi and Iran? He doesn’t have coherent ideas to answer those questions. The leader of a country needs a policy that is reasonably consistent,” Zaidi says.
However, Khan’s desire to pivot Pakistan away from the United States toward other regional partners like Turkey has been a welcome change. “I credit him for diversifying partners, such as deepening relations with Turkey and Malaysia. This was done under the scope of expanding partnerships with other Muslim states. But despite all this, when it comes to the balance sheet on his foreign policy, it did not look much different from before he came to power,” Kugelman said.
WHAT KHAN’S FOREIGN POLICY DID
So if Khan’s approach to foreign policy hasn’t actually impacted foreign policy much, why is it still so important? It’s because Khan has used his foreign policy to influence Pakistan’s domestic society and internal security.
His popularity has grown exponentially and has become increasingly visible in the rallies and protests immediately following his ousting. He’s become one of Pakistan’s most talked about leaders for voicing something different from his predecessors. For a country that’s long survived on foreign aid and has been constantly under the influence of whatever regional activities were being carried out by global powers, the articulation of Pakistan daring to move away from US dependence has created a ripple of emotion amongst the Pakistani public.
Hassan Abbas, a Distinguished Professor at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, points out that even his seemingly foreign policy approach when it came to blaming the United States for his ouster had a domestic focus. “Even when he was saying it was a foreign policy issue, he was saying all of it to gain local support — and it worked,” he shares.
Kugelman adds, “I do think it’s important to emphasize that Khan’s views on foreign policy may be unusual for government leaders and politicians, but they’re normal for the Pakistani population. In effect, his views on foreign policies reflect those of the public more than they do elite opinion. That’s why he’s a populist, and that’s also why he gained so much popularity.”
Despite Khan’s many inconsistencies regarding action, his rhetoric connected deeply with many Pakistanis. Now — expert or not — many more people have become very vocal in demanding certain approaches from the government. Future leaders will have to deal with the consequences of answering to a public whose focus lies more on the optics than on actual change because that’s what Khan made a priority.
Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist focusing on global gender justice and marginalized communities in South Asia.