Imran Khan's govt in Pakistan prefers denying terrorism than learning lessons from 9/11

It has been seventeen years since 9/11 and Pakistan’s expressed willingness to join the US-led war against terrorism. The dichotomies of Pakistan’s stance on terrorism have only become more exposed during this period instead of diminishing.

And now, once again, Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government have made it clear that engagement with the rest of the world will be based on posturing for domestic political advantage rather than addressing complex policy issues.

Khan’s selection as Prime Minister through a controversial election process is the result of a belief among a section of Pakistanis, including the country’s establishment, that Pakistan’s global isolation is solely the result of the corruption or incompetence of its politicians.

In reality, however, there are substantive differences that divide Pakistan and other countries. India, the European Union, and the US, for example, believe that Pakistan has not lived up to its promises in dealing with terrorism.

Thousands of civilian lives have been lost at the hands of terrorists, and many Pakistani soldiers have bravely fought the terrorists operating Pakistan. But that does not change the fact that the world sees Pakistan as a safe haven for Jihadis attacking India and the Taliban which is causing rampage in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s military efforts against the Pakistani Taliban was for many years praised by the US in the hope that it will subsequently be extended to the Afghan Taliban. But after fighting the Pakistani Taliban, and describing them as irreconcilable, Pakistan has yet to fire a single shot at the Afghan Taliban.

Khan and Pakistan’s establishment both now argue that talks with the Taliban is the only way forward in Afghanistan. If that is the case, Americans have started asking why Pakistan has chosen to fight Pakistani Taliban instead of engaging in talks with them?

Either the Taliban’s ideology is amenable to reconciliation, in which case both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban must be considered reconcilable enemies, or their core beliefs make them a difficult negotiating partner, which definition should then apply to the Taliban from both countries.   

Instead of acknowledging concerns of other countries about Pakistani tolerance for terrorism and extremism, Khan’s government wants to tell Pakistanis that the rest of the world will accept Pakistan as it is just because the ‘great Khan’ is now in charge.

The world, of course, does not work that way. Three different governments –the US, India, and the Netherlands – have gently pushed back on the new Pakistani government’s attempts to build Khan’s image at home by misrepresenting their positions.

India was the first to refute foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s claim that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had written a letter to Imran Khan inviting him for talks. India denied the Pakistani minister’s claim, pointing out that while Modi congratulated Khan on assuming office, India would engage to make South Asia “free of terror and violence, and to focus on development”. In other words, there would be no return to ‘business as usual’ without some action from Pakistan against terrorists responsible for violence on Indian territory.

Within a few days of the rebuke from India, Khan’s hyper-nationalist populism resulted in a spat with the US.

The US had specifically avoided congratulating Khan on his supposed election victory, having noted the lack of fairness of the election process during and after the elections. “We recognise and welcome the newly elected Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on taking the oath of office” was markedly different from statements issued after Pakistan’s elections in 2008 and 2013.

In 2008, the US had congratulated Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and described Pakistan as “a good friend and ally” with whom the US has a variety of “mutual, overlapping interests”. Five years later, President Obama had told Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that, “America respects the mandate you have been given”.

This time around, the US State Department informed the media after a phone conversation between Khan and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo that Pompeo had “raised the importance of Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan and its vital role in promoting the Afghan peace process”.

Instead of recognising the lack of effusiveness, Qureshi decided to tell Pakistanis that the State Department’s account of the conversation was “not representative of the facts”. The Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman had already tweeted about the “factually incorrect statement issued by the US State Department” regarding the discussion during the phone call.

According to the Pakistan Foreign Office, there had been “no mention at all in the conversation about terrorists operating in Pakistan”. The State Department stood by its statement and tried to give the Pakistani side an opportunity to back down, saying it had been a “good call”.

Pompeo has scheduled a short stopover in Islamabad on 5 September on his way to India for a longer visit and the US wanted to focus on the prospect of engagement rather than get lost amid the type of noise that has undermined US-Pakistan relations in the past. But Qureshi doubled down on his verbosity about “their press release mentioning terrorists operating in Pakistan” being “contrary to the facts”.

The State Department quietly shared the transcript of the Khan-Pompeo conversation with the Pakistani Foreign Office, which according to a Pakistani report “embarrassed the government” over challenging the American account of the conversation. One Pakistani official was reported as saying, “Now, we don’t want to create more misunderstandings as we already have trust issues with the US” and the government asked the Pakistani media to ‘bury’ the issue it had created.

The latest failed effort of the new government in trying to score points by playing to religious-nationalist sentiment at home relates to an otherwise obscure contest in the Netherlands of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. The contest had been announced by opposition member of Parliament, Geert Wilders, who is known for his extreme positions against Islam and Muslims.  

Few Europeans took Wilders’ competition seriously and there was little reaction to it anywhere in the Muslim world, except in Pakistan. Tehrik-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR), which had violently challenged the Nawaz Sharif government, decided to make the competition an issue and its founder went to the extent of declaring that this was an issue over which “Pakistan should launch a nuclear attack on Holland”. Instead of restraining Pakistani extremists, Khan’s government decided to side with their cause. Newly minted minister for human rights, Shireen Mazari, called on western nations to stop blasphemy the same way they act against holocaust denial. The Foreign Office summoned the Dutch ambassador for a démarche and asked Pakistan’s embassies abroad to mobilise international opinion against the provocative caricature competition.

Things took a serious turn when a Pakistani young man, who had posted a video announcing his intention to kill Wilders, was arrested at a train station in the Netherlands upon arrival from Paris. Wilders cancelled the competition to avoid violence and bloodshed. Khan’s government celebrated its ‘diplomatic victory’ in having the caricatures competition cancelled even though the Dutch government had nothing to do either with organising or cancelling the contest.

As is often the case with narcissist celebrities, Khan lacks the humility to understand the limits of his celebrity status in international relations. His followers have an exaggerated view of Pakistan’s international influence and power.     

This article is reprinted here with the permission of the author and The Print.