Shaken and stirred by Imran Khan

By Mosharraf Zaidi
March 21, 2023

Three things have happened in the last ten days that have put Pakistan even more firmly on a default trajectory than it was on before.


First, China has injected a small quantum of money ($500 million) into the Pakistani reserves, providing a long-needed boost to the prospects of evading sovereign default. Every dollar in is a dollar more for Ishaq Dar to play with.

Second, Ishaq Dar has sought to conflate Pakistan’s national security with the IMF’s demands of the Ministry of Finance. This most irresponsible fiction (that required no further follow up, only laughter) has since been denied unambiguously by the IMF itself. Expect more pseudo-nationalist bombast from the prime accountant as things get worse.

Third, the PDM coalition government has put in motion plans to issue a complex and very expensive (both in absolute dollar terms, and in terms of the administrative costs to ensure it serves the intended target population) petroleum subsidy for motorcyclists and small cars. How expensive? It will probably account for the full $500 million China has just lent the country. So much for blaming Shaukat Tarin for his petrol subsidy.

All three developments point in the same direction: Pakistan is unlikely to receive the $1.1 billion that remains in the current IMF programme. Pakistan is now going to have to experience a miracle to avoid default.

The more significant element of the emerging calculus that is driving Ishaq Dar, the PDM, and the military leadership is the degree to which international political economy is being seen as the ultimate locus for Pakistan’s economic solvency. The China factor, and in particular the China-US competition, as well as the false assertions about the IMF’s desire to alter Pakistan’s choices on longer range missile capability are not disconnected from the heart of the politics that consumes Pakistan – at home and internationally.

At home, Imran Khan sought to play chicken with the US and other Western powers, in three ways. First, he chose to frame the events that took place in Afghanistan after August 15, 2021 as Afghans breaking “the shackles of slavery”.

Second, he leaned into the Vladimir Putin scam in Moscow – where Mother Russia continues to play footsie with Islamabad and Rawalpindi, whilst holding hands and exchanging rings with New Delhi. And third of course, he falsely attributed his removal from office as a US conspiracy, when he knew all along that it was his Notification Gate gambit backfiring that led to the Vote of No Confidence.

Internationally, all of Pakistan’s decision-makers (Imran Khan included) are stuck, variously, in the ‘war on terror’ of the 2000s, the great game modalities of the 1960s, and a shallow and inaccurate understanding of Gulf countries and the aspirations of the ruling millennial generation in Riyadh and across the GCC.

All this takes place concurrent to three important developments. First, China has brokered a hopeful detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Second, India’s far right-wing tilt, and its growing confidence on the international stage offers, for the first time since1999, some daylight for Pakistani strategists to try to exploit in Western capitals. Third, and perhaps most important, is that for the first time since their independence, Central Asian capitals have real choices to make in terms of their decision matrix for strategic stability in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Azerbaijan.

All of this international context for Pakistan is undergirded by India’s interminable march to becoming a $8 trillion economy by 2030. Soon, India will be able to buy a lot more than just S-400s and Rafale jets.

In short, the world Pakistan exists in is changing extremely fast. The old ways of measuring who is a friend, and who is an adversary, as well as how the economic security of the country can be assured have failed Pakistan. A new kind of thinking is required. The domestic political disquiet is, therefore, not accidental. It is part of a wider set of vastly different incentives – positive and negative – that are going to shape Pakistani strategic choices over the next decade or more.

The reason the events at Zaman Park seem so removed from global realities is the same reason that Maryam Nawaz Sharif interviews seem so disconnected from local realities, which is the same reason that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s endless travels seem so disconnected from Pakistan’s needs today: none of the major political parties have any serious thinking on the changing global landscape. And it shows.

If you have a conservative view of Pakistani power and its limits (and most military leaders, as well as the PPP and PML-N have this conservative lens) then Imran Khan is dangerously irresponsible. His whimsical approach to the notion of the Muslim Ummah blew up the relationship with Saudi Arabia. His casual approach to Russia has done nothing to further the country’s strategic autonomy in terms of energy security. His conceit and casualness in allowing people like Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Shireen Mazari to endlessly complain about Pakistani foreign affairs in public caused significant injury to Pakistani interests. His willingness to let General Bajwa run key foreign relationships while he was prime minister has badly damaged civilian credibility in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Washington DC, London, Beijing and Brussels.

But what if you have a different view of Pakistani power and its limits? What if your view is decidedly not conservative? What if your view is informed by Pakistani national power’s regional and global potential, rather than its limits? In this space, Imran Khan is not just a credible option for many Pakistanis, but in fact the most exciting candidate among those in the running to lead the country. It doesn’t matter that Khan may be incapable of delivering on this excitement, incapable of converting the idealism of his hot takes on international affairs into actual improvements for Pakistan’s economic and political autonomy. What matters, in the hearts and minds of those excited by Khan, is that his opponents don’t even have the guts to imagine a different Pakistani reality.

Pakistan has a median age of 23, and among the fastest urbanising population in South Asia. The young Pakistani hears and sees more than her taya, phuppa and maamoo do. She walks in public space more confidently, doesn’t see the contradiction between increased female labour force participation and Islam, doesn’t have a lot to lose from adopting and sustaining radical political positions, and wants much, much more than what the dinosaurs running Islamabad can offer. This Pakistani sees the world, not from the lens of Pakistan’s enviable and outsized foreign affairs footprint of the 1980s, but from the lens of the unmitigated humiliation that Pakistani populists have curated in the public discourse for the majority of the last quarter century.

The contest for Pakistan is often framed primarily as an inter-elite contest where the military has a unique and unchallenged dominance over the present and future of Pakistan’s place in the world. What Imran Khan’s successful conversion of the defeat of the VONC into victory after victory after victory over the last twelve months shows is that something more than just an elite contest is taking place in Pakistan.

The Pakistani imagination has been stirred. In my view, 77-year-old Pervez Elahi, 71-year-old Ijazul Haq and 66-year-old Shah Mehmood Qureshi are not exactly the team that will deliver a truly new reality to the half of Pakistan below 23 years of age. But this view ignores the electricity that 70-year-old Imran Khan generates like he was a newly commissioned nuclear reactor. It is more than enough megawatts to carry the deadweight of the PTI’s legions of hanger-on, insipid establishment lackeys. And populist politics in 2023 has never been about the actual realization of exciting narratives about khudi and rising like a falcon above the clouds. It is mostly about stirring the imagination.

Dangerous, unrealistic and unhinged, even. Imran Khan represents all of this in how he thinks about Pakistan’s place in the world. But it is a lot more exciting than the dead-on-arrival, defeatist and retreating sad little country that many highly conservative players in Pakistan’s security and international relations space seem to be content with.

In concert with the great game that shapes China-US competition and the micro and mini games being played at Zaman Park and in Pakistan’s courts, there is this mid-sized game that Khan is playing with Pakistan’s power brokers.

The worry for serious people in Pakistan and everywhere else is not that he may be winning – but that his winning signifies nothing more than a stirring of the imagination. No more.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.