Following Imran’s anti-American stance and toxic Islamist narration, Bhutto’s talks with Blinken were difficult.

Following Imran's anti-American stance and toxic Islamist narration, Bhutto's talks with Blinken were difficult.

When Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari meets with US State Secretary Blinken later this month in New York, he will be negotiating after Imran Khan’s three years of misrule, during which the ex-PM knowingly charted an anti-US course filled with toxic Islamist narrative. Anti-Americanism is a part of the Pakistani mindset that is utilized on a regular basis, regardless of politicians, Islamist clerics, or even the military, which is recognized as the country’s permanent institution. With his phone call on Friday, May 6, Blinken gave a grin to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. He persuaded Bhutto to attend a ministerial meeting on global food security in New York, prompting celebrations at the Pakistan Foreign Office. It is, nonetheless, Imran Khan, the first-ever constitutionally deposed Prime Minister of Pakistan, pegged his own survival strategy to anti-Americanism laced with a toxic Islamist narrative. Anwar Iqbal, the long-time Washington correspondent of Dawn, the sedate English daily from Karachi, said that the 45-minute long Blinken-Bilawal conversation underlines the US desire to re-engage with Pakistan.

A deep sense of hurt became pronounced in the Imran camp as Biden appeared to have moved closer to India; he had telephoned Prime Minister Narendra Modi soon after he moved into the White House. Both had held more than a couple of meetings – some virtual sessions. Whether by design or by accident this humiliation has had no parallel in US-Pak relations. Imran’s visit to Moscow for a tete-tete at the Kremlin when Putin’s tanks and planes began a blitzkrieg of Ukraine heralded radio silence in the US-Pak relations. Given the backing of the Army, Imran Khan could have done wonders as Premier but he proved to be an all-around disaster. He did nothing to improve the declining economy and plunged the country into an energy crisis. To win popularity he harped on “ghairat” (self-respect) in the face of alleged US efforts to throw him out of power. His anti-American rhetoric made his patrons in Khaki shun him publicly. He hoped to cash in on the help of “iron brother” China and the newfound friend Russia to surmount all his woes; the hope remained a mirage. The reality showed that Pakistan cannot come out of the woods without courting the US and the Generals, the Sharifs and Bilawals sealed Imran’s fate.

However, both sides have their compulsions, Pakistan more than the United States since its economy is tottering at the brink and the Taliban in Afghanistan is refusing to kowtow to its diktats on terror containment. Both the coalition government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the GHQ [General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army] know that Pakistan cannot thrive by putting all its eggs in the China basket or pursuing a strident anti-US policy nor by resenting growing Indo-US relations and using it to fan anti-US sentiments in the country. A telephone call from US President Joe Biden could have offered an ego trip to Imran Khan however, the call never came. Even Blinken slammed the doors on Imran’s garrulous foreign minister Shah Muhammad Qureshi since last September.

The financial distress in Pakistan requires aid from a variety of sources, not just Saudi Arabia or China. The IMF and the World Bank are better placed to extricate Pakistan from its financial woes. Finance Minister Miftah Ismail’s negotiations in Washington brought this home truth with an assurance of a USD 6 billion bailout package. It is not going to be a free lunch and the Shehbaz government will have to put in place an austerity regime. It is a small temporary price instead of becoming a failed state. For yet another reason Pakistan needs a friendly US. It is for a bailout from its troubles with the Paris-based UN agency, Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Pakistan has been trying to shake off the FATF ‘grey list’ since 2018 without success.

Imran had built up a public narrative of ‘Indian influence’ for his FATF troubles. It did not offer any respite since the US has gone to the town holding Pakistan guilty of twin follies. One the inadequate measures to quell money laundering that aids terror organizations and the second not arresting UN-designated terrorists linked to terror attacks on India. Pakistan may not be able to wish away Imran Khan and he may try to exploit the Blinken opening for a new bonhomie to his own political advantage but today he is no more than a street-smart politician with a toxic narrative. The initiative has passed on to Shehbaz and Bilawal and their realpolitik.

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