NEW YORK -- Welcome to Nikkei Asia's podcast: Asia Stream.
Every week, Asia Stream tracks and analyzes the Indo-Pacific with a mix of expert interviews and original reporting by our correspondents from across the globe.
New episodes are recorded weekly and available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all other major platforms, and on our YouTube channel.
This week, we focus on Pakistan's prime minister problem.
Since it gained independence 75 years ago, not one of Pakistan's elected prime ministers has completed a full term of office. Assassinations, coups and resignations have seen to that -- creating one of the world's most volatile polities, in what some see as one of the world's roughest neighborhoods.
Now, Pakistan's 22nd prime minister, Imran Khan, faces a parliamentary crisis. From cricket superstar and international playboy, to jet-setting philanthropist, to populist Islamist, Imran Khan's climb to the highest office in Pakistan has been a remarkable case study in professional evolution. Now he's in a fight for political survival as he faces a vote of no-confidence in a raucous parliament.
In this episode, Asia Stream Correspondent Monica Hunter-Hart reports on Khan's political ascent. Then, Asfandyar Mir of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Madiha Afzal of the Brookings Institution and Uzair Younis of the Atlantic Council weigh in on what ails Pakistan's democracy.
Asia Stream is hosted by Wajahat S. Khan, our digital editor and executive producer, and produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt.
Related to this episode:
Pakistan PM Khan faces ouster amid fears of failing economy, by Adnan Aamir
China takes wait-and-see stance on Pakistan's political turmoil, by Adnan Aamir
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WAJAHAT KHAN, HOST: Hello and welcome to Asia Stream, where we track, report and analyze the issues and interests of the world's largest region.
I am Waj Khan, Nikkei Asia's digital editor, here in New York City.
Today's episode: Pakistan's prime minister problem.
From cricket superstar and international playboy, to a jet-setting philanthropist, to a populist Islamist prime minister, Imran Khan's ascent to the highest office in Pakistan has been a remarkable case study in professional evolution. Now he's in a fight for political survival as he faces a vote of no-confidence, which could happen as early as March 24, or sometime next week, depending on the whims of parliament. If the parliament votes against him, Pakistan's 22nd prime minister will be removed from office.
So, how did Imran Khan get here?
25 years ago, in his first election, Khan managed to win just one seat in Pakistan's national assembly. In the last election in 2018, he finally attained the highest prize, but through a fragile coalition.
However, the 68-year-old Khan didn't just become Pakistan's prime minister all by himself.
Over the years, he made questionable alliances, unsavory but necessary to survive in Pakistan's dirty, raucous politics. He teamed up with hardline religious parties; he aligned with corrupt tycoons; he worked with notorious turncoats.
But as he harnessed the power of social media like no Pakistani politician had before to construct his populist brand, which he then sold to millions of urban and young voters, the biggest bargain he struck was with the mighty Pakistan Army, and its praetorian intelligence services.
The Pakistani military is not a typical fighting force. For one, it's nuclear-armed, has fought three wars and countless skirmishes with India, and interfered for decades in Afghanistan through proxy war. It has hedged in the War on Terror, partnering with the U.S. on one side, but supporting the Taliban on the other. Today, it finds itself out of favor with Washington, but a rather important player for China, which sees it as a partner to counter Delhi.
Thus, the army in Pakistan has for years been called a deep state within the state -- a geopolitical entity, but also a political animal which has ruled Pakistan directly or indirectly since independence -- taking the fight to its external enemies, but also meddling in the internal affairs of the country.
However, political realities in Pakistan's robust civil society have forced the military to shy away from conducting coups of late -- rather, democrats, activists and media have forced the army to adopt a new strategy of "leading from behind" through the likes of Imran Khan.
But like so many who came before him, Imran Khan's time with the military seems to have run out.
Some of his predecessors have been imprisoned. Some have been exiled. Some have been assassinated. And some have been executed.
As he faces a vote of no-confidence, and a military which seems to have abandoned him, what future awaits Imran Khan, and more importantly, Pakistan and South Asia?
We've got quite the show. So pad up for a very sticky wicket.
You're listening to the sound of Asia, streaming in your ear.
From Nikkei Asia, this is Asia Stream.
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KHAN: Now, joining us in the studio to get us started, with an intro into the man at the center of all of this, is Asia Stream correspondent Monica Hunter-Hart. Monica, welcome back.
MONICA HUNTER-HART: Thanks for having me.
KHAN: So, Monica, full disclaimer: I grew up in Karachi in the '80s, so I came of age watching Khan's victories on the cricket field and hearing wild stories about his scandalous, high-society adventures with movie stars and rock stars. But give us an overview of the man for people who didn't grow up surrounded by his face in the tabloids and on TV.
HUNTER-HART: So Waj, as you know, Khan was a celebrity decades before he ever became prime minister, as far back as the '70s.
AL JAZEERA ENGLISH JOURNALIST: Imran Khan has lived many lives.
TRT WORLD JOURNALIST: Pakistan didn't have rock stars, but they had Imran Khan.
NOWTHIS WORLD JOURNALIST: Cricket superstar, playboy, politician.
HUNTER-HART: His fame started in his cricket days. He grew up between Lahore and England, gaining acclaim for his skills at the game while at Oxford and also garnering a reputation as a jet-setting sex symbol. He was known for breaking the hearts of stars and heiresses around the world, as well as setting sporting records. He retired from cricket after his greatest sporting achievement, which was victory at the World Cup in 1992. It was the only time Pakistan ever won that championship.
KHAN: Do you really need to rub it in, Monica?
HUNTER-HART: I'm just saying, it was a significant milestone that made Khan an even more significant figure. He used the power of that against-all-odds victory to propel himself into politics. He also made even more of a name for himself by launching into philanthropy, and building important infrastructure for battling cancer in Pakistan. So he goes from playing cricket to trying to fight cancer to then, in 1996, entering politics. He starts his own party, the PTI, or the Movement for Justice, which vowed to fight corruption. But he remained on the margins of politics for more than a decade, until, finally, and controversially, he built up enough momentum and support to eventually be elected prime minister in 2018. I think one entertaining way to track his political career is through his nicknames.
KHAN: Ah yes. In the early years, I remember he was "Im the Dim."
HUNTER-HART: Right, that was when he was seen as sort of gentle and naive. Back then he had a more humanistic philosophy. He was against the military dictator Musharraf, against nuclear weapons, and often supported minority rights. Much later, he started openly supporting the Taliban, so he was "Taliban Khan."
KHAN: And now, of course, he's "U-Turn Khan."
HUNTER-HART: Yep, because of all of his policy reversals. His politics have definitely shifted towards the right. Now he embraces a kind of conservative populism. He's also evolved into a hardcore nationalist who argues that Pakistanis for too long have felt themselves inferior to Western culture, even slaves to it. One can sympathize with that argument -- right up until he pairs it with really extreme comments like calling Osama bin Laden a martyr, or suggesting that Afghanistan finally broke free of the shackles of slavery when the Taliban took over...
(Imran Khan's voice rises, then lowers under the translation)
WION TRANSLATOR: When you become a mental slave, then remember that mental slavery is worse than actual slavery. It is more difficult to break the chains of mental slavery. In Afghanistan, they have just broken the chains of slavery.
KHAN: It's quite the turnaround for someone who used to hang out with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Princess Diana. But let's pivot to the military for a moment, because they're a crucial part of this story, right. The Pakistani military has always been heavily involved in national politics, recurrently staging coups and directly ruling the country as recently as 2008. Their strong support for Imran Khan over the years is seen as one of the reasons he was able to become prime minister. Of course, we also have to note that Khan's win was contested by the opposition.
CHANNEL 4 NEWS JOURNALIST: While his supporters have been celebrating across the country, his victory has been overshadowed by accusations of voting irregularities.
KHAN: The military and Khan have tended to align on many things, like supporting the Taliban. So if the military was still supporting Khan right now, he probably would be fairly insulated from the opposition's bid to remove him. But that isn't the case anymore.
HUNTER-HART: No, it's not. The army seems to have withdrawn its support for Khan. In terms of why, well, it's both about internal politics and great power politics. Internally, there's a bunch of palace intrigue: the military sees Khan as interfering in its highly-sensitive hierarchy. In the larger scheme of things, the military has close connections to the U.S. and is frustrated with how extreme some of Khan's anti-West rhetoric and actions have become.
KHAN: And one of the most blatant recent examples of that was Khan's visit to Russia on the exact day that Russia invaded Ukraine.
WION JOURNALIST: Guess who is visiting Moscow? Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan... The timing could not have been worse.
WION JOURNALIST 2: Many people looking at it would look at the optics of the Pakistani prime minister sitting with Vladimir Putin and beaming to the cameras.
WION JOURNALIST 3: Pakistan is facing pressure to issue condemnation of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
HUNTER-HART: Khan and his foreign office haven't condemned Russia's invasion. And beyond all of that, Khan is also under fire for failing to fix Pakistan's crippling debt crisis, and not making a dent to fight the country's inflation, which is the highest in South Asia, or even delivering on his campaign promise of fighting corruption. Instead he's mostly just been targeting his own political opponents. So all of that brings us to Khan's potential ouster this week.
INDIA TODAY JOURNALIST: What is happening in Pakistan? Is Imran Khan on his way out?
INDIA TODAY JOURNALIST 2: Imran Khan is facing a no-confidence motion. But unlike earlier bouncers in his political career, the former cricketer is struggling to duck this one.
KHAN: It's going to be a messy few days. Well thanks, Monica, for catching us up on the basics before we move into our deeper dive.
HUNTER-HART: Sure thing, Waj.
KHAN: 220 million people. One of the world's youngest populations. Rising inflation. Rising debt. Rising extremism. A complicated and corrupt multi-party system. A very tough neighborhood. And nuclear weapons. Pakistan isn't an easy place to govern, much less when you're facing a vote of no confidence. To help us investigate "Pakistan's perpetual prime minister problem," I am joined by an esteemed group of Pakistan watchers in Washington D.C.
Madiha Afzal is a fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings and the author of the book "Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State." She previously worked as an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Dawn, Newsweek, Foreign Policy and numerous other outlets.
MADIHA AFZAL, GUEST: Thanks for having me.
KHAN: Uzair Younus is the director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center in Washington, D.C. He's also the manager for engagement and strategy at Dhamiri, an innovation firm helping companies align their business competencies with public good needs, as well as the host of the Pakistonomy podcast.
UZAIR YOUNUS, GUEST: Pleasure to be here.
KHAN: All right. Asfandyar Mir is a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace and an affiliate with Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation. His research has appeared in journals like International Security and Security Studies, and his commentary has appeared in the likes of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Asfandyar, welcome to the show.
ASFANDYAR MIR, GUEST: Great to be here.
KHAN: All right. So this is going to be literally the Shakespearean three act tragedy with all three of you, what's happening, why is it happening and what's going to happen? Madiha, I'm going to start with you. Procedurally, please lay it out for us. Tell us who the players are. This one, of course, there's the military establishment, there's the opposition. And then there's the 220-odd million people in Pakistan. Give us the 101 here real quickly. What's the issue here and what's at stake?
AFZAL: There are a number of moving sort of factors at play. The first is that there are these dissenting lawmakers from within Khan's own party that have indicated their frustration with him. Then there is the matter of the Allied parties, three of them in particular, which have also indicated their frustration with Khan's government. And these allied parties basically, are separate parties, but they're part of the ruling party coalition. You know, in Pakistan, the majority party, the ruling party basically comes into power with such, you know, a weak plurality, that they need coalition partners to form a majority. And so that's where these allied parties come in. So three of them have threatened to basically move away. So there's that matter, we don't quite know where these folks will fall right now, because they're sort of still dithering.
Then there's the matter of the Supreme Court, which Khan's government has asked to give an opinion on whether dissenting ruling party lawmakers can actually cast a vote against him in the National Assembly. Khan's party contends that the constitution does not allow them to do so, the lawyers and constitutional experts contend that it does. So there's the Supreme Court. And then, of course, underlying all of this is the matter of Khan's relationship with the establishment, which is really sort of, you know, Pakistan speak for the military. And that relationship seems to have cooled in recent weeks and months. And there is a question of sort of the establishment remaining neutral and where this ends up going, which we think will be defined by where the establishment is leaning.
KHAN: Wow, that's, that's a long menu of players over there. But I'm going to let you start with the opposition and the parliament, Uzair. Madiha's laid it out for us. But I want you to pull on that particular political strand of no-confidence motions. Now, from what I understand, no confidence motions usually happen over major policy disagreements, or there's a major bid for reform and that goes south. But Pakistan has faced, in the last couple of decades -- Pakistan has faced more indeed -- one in 1989 and one, one in 2006. Both have failed. So tell us from the parliamentary perspective, what went south here?
YOUNUS: So I think there's a couple of things that were not set up right for him. Many people refer to his government as "hybrid regime," although I would contend that almost every government in Pakistan, democratically elected or not, has been a hybrid of sorts where it has been brought to power, either by the tacit or the implicit support of the military. Khan, when he came to power is perhaps the weakest prime minister to be elected by parliament since the end of the dictatorship under General Musharraf in 2007-8. And so he had odd stacks stacked against him. And I think over the last three years, the fundamental mistake he's made is twofold. One, is that he has not empowered parliament. There's the famous opening speech, so to speak, that he gave in parliament and the opposition hounded him, and that left a sour taste in his mouth. And while his party was promising that they would have a monthly question-and-answer session, such as what happens in England, he really failed to empower parliament and make parliament his own dominant battlefield, so to speak.
The second mistake that he made over the last three and a half years was he did not keep his enemies as close as he should have, including those within the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or his allied party. So instead of dealing with them and building a relationship from a position of strength, now Khan finds himself being abandoned by either dissenters within his party or, or allies who are engaging in negotiations with the opposition. And what Khan is quickly finding out is that he does not have the strength of the parliament or his own party behind him to sort of stand up and say, "I am still prime minister, and I'm confident in my victory." And I think being the weakest prime minister to be elected in recent years really is a major handicap that should not be underestimated. However, I would also say that in Pakistan's history, neither a prime minister has completed a five year term, nor has he or she ever been ousted in a vote of no confidence. So either way, this will be a historic moment in Pakistan's floundering and flawed democracy. But Khan ultimately will find that even if he survives, the fact that he has not empowered parliament, will be his greatest weakness moving forward.
KHAN: Asfandyar Mir, this one's for you. Did he really need to engage parliament when of course he had 650,000 uniformed Pakistan military soldiers, sailors and airmen behind him. Of course, the Pakistani military is the sixth largest in the world, it's nuclear armed and the Pakistan army is the dominant influential institution, but Khan came in, he was quite tight with the Pakistani military, and one particular man comes to mind, of course: General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the 16th army chief of Pakistan. They were quite tight. They were hanging out a lot together. They were seen at military parades together they met a lot. They, according to inside information, they were getting along fine. So how has this break with the military -- Bajwa's still around, there hasn't been a change of the guard -- how has this break with the military happened now? Why has, as Madiha was saying, why has the military lost interest? Why is it cooled on Khan?
MIR: Waj, I agree, I think Khan's predicament is inseparable from his controversial rise to power in the 2018 election, I think it was manipulated to ensure Khan's victory by the Pakistani military. And as you note, after the election, the military was keen on helping him out. It played a major part in helping Khan consolidate his grip on power. Despite being weak inside the parliament, the military helped him in cobbling a winning parliamentary coalition, in managing the media -- especially parts of the media, which were critical of Khan, and which would point out the military's role in helping him gain power -- and then passing, you know, critical legislative votes. Even there, the military and the intelligence services played a key part. But then, you know, I think starting 2020, late 2020, early 2021, we get indications that the relationship between the military and Khan was souring, it was going south. And as you know, the key person, key interlocutor in that equation in that relationship was the army chief. The Army Chief Qamar Bajwa, he was initially unhappy with, with some domestic political things that Khan did. He is -- this is now mostly on the record -- the army chief was unhappy with Khan's pick for the chief minister of Pakistan's largest province, Punjab. Bajwa really disliked that man -- still dislikes that person, wanted Khan to replace him -- but Khan refused to do that. But the bigger problem appears to be, and I think this is still being explored in the commentary on Pakistan, and that was over foreign policy.
Now, ironically, despite leading an institution, which has traditionally been a source of hawkish foreign policy preferences in Pakistan, you know, the army chief Bajwa seems to have wanted a more conciliatory approach towards the United States and India. And on the U.S., this was in the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, and the war coming to a close, and Bajwa wanting to start things afresh, you know, really reset that relationship. And then on India, it appears that Bajwa wanted to bring the level of hostility down. He's had a back channel with the Indians, in which he's made some concessions, like sort of reining in some of Pakistani proxy elements in operating into parts of Indian Kashmir and other parts of India. He really brought the violence levels down, or so he claims to his Indian interlocutors. Khan, on the other hand, appears to have wanted a more populist foreign policy. He's leaned into traditional anti-American and anti-Indian narratives in Pakistan, and that has managed to sow major discord between the two. Ultimately, however, where this relationship appears to have snapped is on the eve of the appointment of the chief of intelligence last year. Khan liked this last chief of intelligence that he had, his name is General Faiz, Gen. Faiz Hamid. Khan wanted to retain him, he appears to want to replace him with Bajwa later in the year, but Bajwa wanted, wanted Faiz gone, and Khan and Bajwa sparred over that appointment. Ultimately, Bajwa had his way, but it seems like he's not forgotten Khan's insistence on retaining, retaining Faiz.
YOUNUS: And, and Waj, really quickly, if I may add, on Asfandyar's point on India in particular, it's also the fact that the way decision-making has occurred under this government led by Khan has been a constant source of embarrassment. And I'll just give you one example. In early 2021, the commerce ministry says Pakistan is about to begin buying Indian cotton and sugar. And at that time, sugar prices were escalating in Pakistan, so it made sense. But then the prime minister backtracked on this, and those have been sources -- they're fleeting moments, but they indicate and sort of evidence that frustration has been mounting because they're a constant source of embarrassment, not only for Pakistan as a country and as a government, but also for the military establishment because they're the ones who allegedly brought him to power.
KHAN: Right. Well, his impulsiveness has been a question mark, Uzair. But I want to bring it back to Madiha real quickly, because after Asfandyar's draw out, especially of that last bit, Madiha, the palace intrigue. Why is it that the appointment of one man in this -- yes, it is the perfect storm, there's different factors in play here, as you pointed out -- but the appointment of one general in particular seems to be really ready to roil the world's sixth-largest country into political mayhem. Draw it out for us within the larger context, if you can. Is that what this is all about? Is this about personal relationships between the brass and Khan?
AFZAL: Well, General Faiz Hamid, the former DG ISI, is known to be loyal to Khan. And, you know, the contention is that he did, in fact, help in sort of the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, that helped Khan come to power. You know, now, three and a half years ago, sort of just post that election, I wrote a piece titled, "Did Imran Khan win a dirty election -- as some are calling it -- or a real mandate?" And I think the question, you know, there is little doubt that there was interference, right, there was interference, there was interference in terms of getting independent lawmakers to come over to Khan's side, this kind of horse trading -- you know, people moving from one political party to the other, depending on where the political winds happen to be sort of blowing -- is something that is a given, unfortunately, in Pakistani politics. So you know, there was interference. On the other hand, I think Khan does have a popular base, right, his populist kind of brand of politics does appeal to, you know, a segment in Pakistan's population, in particular, the youth. The story is one of a combination of the popularity of Khan, yes, but interference, as well. Which led to this kind of on-the-same-page regime, if you will, where the civilian and military sides appear to be on the same page. Now, many of us had said at that point, right, they can start off on the same page, but at some point, the cracks are going to start emerging. And we saw that repeatedly, of course, since 2018, but they always, the cracks managed to be papered over by Khan, by Bajwa.
Khan's brand of politics -- and this has been touched upon in the in the previous discussion -- is an antagonistic one. You know, he's antagonized the opposition. He's antagonized elements of his own party, the, leading to the dissenting lawmakers. But he's now also antagonizing, you know, sort of opening up this front in many ways with the military. Just, you know, in recent days, for instance, he said something that many have sort of been shocked at, which is, when the military has said that they have a neutral stance towards what's going on in politics. He very pointedly basically, in a speech said, you know, "human beings side with good or evil, and they side with good. Only animals remain neutral." And that's considered a pointed dig at the military.
KHAN: Wow, that's really, really inside baseball, but it's -- I'm curious how policy in Pakistan is being framed around rhetoric, appointments and frankly, ego. But coming back to you, Uzair Younus. This is a broader one. This is about the economy and you said something about India. Firstly, it's quite strange that an elected prime minister has a harder stance on trade with India versus a general in the Pakistani army. I find that quite strange, and I'm wondering what you think of that. But the larger question is, the people of Pakistan are, having been polled recently, there's a poll by Gallup. Most people of Pakistan think that the biggest problem is the country's inflation, and that is what the opposition is harping on about as well, that Khan's economic policies have failed. Now, do you think that there is economic justification there? Forget the generals and forget the hubris and forget the high handedness and the confrontationalism, which has come with Khan and his personality. Let's talk about the dollars and cents here. Has he failed economically? And does that, does the opposition have a case here to make against him?
YOUNUS: Well, the opposition most certainly has a case. And I'll just give you a data point to put things in perspective. Since January 2020, the rate of food inflation in India has been roughly 7%. And during that same period, food inflation in Pakistan has increased by 23%. So orders of magnitude higher in Pakistan, even though it was India that had a much more tragic experience with the pandemic, even though it were Indian farmers who are protesting and blocking New Delhi over proposed reforms. So yes, inflation is a problem, economic mismanagement is definitely a problem. But we also have to contextualize things over the fact that when Khan came into power, the economy was in a state of crisis. It was, had to go to the IMF, and then the pandemic came around. And at that time, I even wrote that if you measured the early response to the pandemic from just an economic lens, Pakistan's bailout, or Pakistan stimulus plan, so to speak, was perhaps the most aggressive and the most effective in curbing the economic impact of the pandemic in the subcontinent.
However, the biggest continuous issues related to Pakistan's economy structurally have not been resolved by this government. In fact, I would argue, in some places, they've been exacerbated, for example, through perhaps the longest ever real estate amnesty scheme in the country's history, which allows the rich and the privileged to whitewash their illicit wealth by buying real estate and property. And all of that has been done through the argument that this is going to create jobs and promote industry and construction services, etc. However, you know, within that context, if you then say, OK, is it economic, their economic justification to get rid of Khan? I don't think so. I think that if the economy is the only argument, then perhaps the opposition and the establishment ought to wait another 12 to 16 months and let the electorate vote, and see how they judge Khan in terms of his overall performance. There is no major reform that Khan has failed at in parliament. There is nothing that is going on strategically in the economic domain that has caused controversy, that says parliament has lost faith in the prime minister. And so I don't think this is about economics. And you can see that it's not about economics, because none of the opposition parties, including the two largest ones, the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League, Nawaz, it's not that they've published white papers or policy documents about what is it that they want to fix with the economy after getting rid of Khan. If economy was of so, so much importance, then perhaps they should also come out with an agenda that says, here's how they would distinguish themselves from Khan and turn the tide when it comes to the economy.
KHAN: Right. And Asfandyar, from the butter to the guns. Really, this is Pakistan. After all, this is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which has borders with the following: Afghanistan, Iran, India, China. This is a rough neighborhood. The War on Terror isn't over, Afghanistan is still the humanitarian crisis there, as well as the developing situation as far as security is concerned. It's still evolving -- just because the war finished on American media, or mainstream media, doesn't mean that the war is over even. The Taliban are next door. There's been a rise of attacks in Pakistan by groups affiliated with the Afghan Taliban. The Chinese and the Indians are facing off in the Himalayas. If something happens there, like it did in 2020, Pakistan might have to participate in one way or the other. Of course, and let's be honest, this is one of the fastest growing nuclear arsenals in the world. One of the biggest armies in the world pitted against another major army in the world. I'm talking about the Indian military, of course. That ain't over. So there's a, there's a, there's a rough neighborhood argument here as well. Please point us in the right direction, as far as the spill-out, the security spill-out and fallout. Where that is going -- while all of us are watching the parliament, what's happening in the provinces? What's happening on those forward operation bases on the Afghan border and elsewhere?
MIR: The military to an extent pays attention to and cares about its relationship with with major powers, the U.S., China and, of course, India. But the Afghanistan question doesn't get the kind of attention, the kind of serious policy treatment it should. And that's mostly because Afghanistan's policy is completely the province of the military, there is no real discussion or debate on alternative paths. And making matters worse, I think the opposition is completely indifferent to the, to the challenge that Afghanistan poses and the security challenges that Pakistan faces. I mean, for one, Pakistan now faces, a revived and more entrenched terrorism problem, sub-state violence. The situation in Afghanistan is, is greatly contributing to that. And Pakistan certainly has brought that upon itself, this really terrible scenario by supporting this regime change in Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban. But among specific threats, I'd point to the challenge of the anti Pakistan insurgent group, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, TTP, it has a safe-haven in Afghanistan. The Taliban are supportive of the TTP. And the TTP is looking very threatening. It has already stepped up its violence in Pakistan periphery, in Pakistan's peripheries, excuse me, and it is starting to impose some real costs on Pakistani security forces.
Then there's ISIS. ISIS is around, ISIS in Afghanistan undertakes operations in Pakistan as well. And it, it recently carried out a major attack on a Shia mosque. And my fear is that ISIS has more mass casualty attacks in the pipeline, then Pakistan also faces an insurgency of ethnic below-age groups. You know, these groups are making separatists political claims. And, and they are looking fairly formidable as well. They also carry out suicide bomb attacks, sometimes, you know, even attacked the Chinese. And that threat is also going up. And finally, Pakistan has an extremism problem. But one group that I point to here is, which you know, comes from mainland Pakistan, particularly in the Punjab province, it's the TLP, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, and that group has a vast infrastructure across the country. It has some, you know, some real organic support. And the TLP kind of walks this line of like, of agitational politics, which at times spills into, into violence, as well. And the Pakistani military and Pakistani security services are kind of afraid of going after this group in any meaningful way. So Pakistan faces all of these major security challenges that, you know, I fear that the opposition certainly doesn't have the answer to and even the military doesn't appreciate in its fullest.
KHAN: Madiha, this one's for you. It seems like Pakistan's political brokers have changed. So where do the foreign powers lie? How are they trying to help, or not? And then, secondly, the larger question -- where does foreign policy go from here? Especially considering Imran Khan was the last international leader seen by the side of Vladimir Putin on the eve of that invasion on the 24th of February against Ukraine. When that invasion was launched, Khan was there, in fact, defended his trip saying it was an exciting time to be at the Kremlin. I'm wondering, in the midst of these serious foreign policy pivots. Pakistan has historically not been a big fan of Russia. How is all of this going to pan out in this fast changing backdrop of a global power shift?
AFZAL: So I would say, in terms of foreign powers and where they stand on the current political crisis, I'd say the U.S. is, frankly, the U.S. and Europe are, frankly, extremely busy with Ukraine right now. So I don't think they really have a clear eye actually on Pakistan and Pakistan's domestic politics. China has been, I think, studiously neutral and really, so when it comes to Pakistan's domestic politics, or in fact, you know, I, all sides in Pakistan, the military and the civilians and sort of each of the civilian parties have civilian political parties, have a close relationship with China. So I would say that they would be neutral on this. And really, this is, you know, what's happening in Pakistan in terms of foreign policy. There are no outside powers playing a role, much as Khan is trying to pin this on, on the West, you know, sort of this is a foreign conspiracy. That is not what's happening. Everything that's happening is internal. Han has embraced this independent foreign policy, which, you know, basically saying, "Look, we're not taking sides here. We want good relationships with all countries, China, Russia, the U.S." There's a question about whether that is possible and in an increasingly sort of a fraught geopolitical climate. But the fact of the matter is that Khan visited China, visited Beijing for the Olympics, which were boycotted by the West and diplomatic boycott. He and Vladimir Putin visited Beijing for those Olympics. Then later that month, of course, as you mentioned, he was seen with Putin coincidentally, that day, because this was a long-planned visit, you know, and on the other hand, we have a U.S. president, who for 14 months hasn't called Imran Khan. So Putin called Khan three times since August, and Khan was seen with him in February. You know, we know that Khan met Xi Jinping in February. And, and, you know, there hasn't been outreach from the Biden administration to Khan, though diplomatic engagements with the U.S. continue at other levels. So there has been a relative cold shoulder coming from the U.S. at the top level.
So what that leaves is, actually, while Pakistan says it wants an independent foreign policy, what it ends up looking like is, you know, Pakistan, embracing Russia and China and not the West, even though you know, part of this is a response to a cold shoulder that Khan has been receiving from the West. That being said, you know, Khan did not attend a democracy summit that he was invited to, in December, partially, maybe because of the phone call, not coming through, partially maybe because China didn't want him to. And so that doesn't end up looking like an independent foreign policy. That ends up looking like Pakistan is, is siding with China. So that is something the military cannot be happy about. Right. Uh, you know, the military wants Pakistan to have, you know, a good relationship with the U.S. And so, you know, the military may be fine with Pakistan's relationships with Russia and China, but not at the expense of the relationship with the U.S. And I think that is playing a bit of a role here. The rhetoric that is coming from Khan, I'm sure is not going over well, for instance, with the Biden administration. One thing I will note is that Khan had in the last two years of the Trump administration, you know, a great relationship with the U.S. because he had personally hit it off with Trump from sort of the 2019 visit that he made to Washington. So I think there are these dynamics at play. His stance towards the West is not immutable. I think it can change depending on how he's dealt with.
KHAN: Uzair Younus, this is the perfect storm. There's an economic problem. There's an opposition problem. There's a military problem. It's the perfect storm when you're facing one of the world's most raucous parliaments, one of the world's hardest military establishments, and one of the world's highest inflation rates. Where would you put your finger? Which factor is really, really going to matter in the next few days, as this vote of no confidence rolls out? What really is going to weigh the most?
YOUNUS: I think over the next few days, the key factor eventually will be the ability of the prime minister himself to sort of put his ego in check, to make the concessions and the compromises that almost every politician and almost every prime minister in Pakistan has had to make, and come to some level of gentlemen's agreement with the chief of army staff over the path forward. I think even if he makes those concessions and survives, he will be a weak prime minister, who will face a very daunting 12 to 18 months ahead of elections. And I think, ultimately, in all of this, no matter how this game of thrones unfolds, the ultimate loser will be Pakistan and the millions of households that have been struggling first through a twin deficit crisis in 2018, then through the pandemic, and now through rising inflation, that just does not seem to want to go away. And in fact, I did not mention this earlier, but Pakistan is facing a wheat crisis in the coming weeks and months, and so more inflation is around the corner. So I think, no matter where this ends up going, we're in for a roller coaster of a ride.
KHAN: Asfandyar, as far as the Second War on Terror is concerned, play this out for us. By the time this podcast comes out, Imran Khan may have lost his seat as the country's 22nd prime minister. What does that mean for the 650,000-man army, which is engaged in what you are currently calling this Second War on Terror? And what happens in the regional security game?
MIR: Look, I think the political disturbance in Islamabad is going to distract the military even further. The military is controversial enough in Pakistan. And if the crisis continues, I think there will be even more questions about the role of the military. And those questions will not just be asked by elites, but also by common people on the street. I think even they will ask questions as to the role that General Bajwa has, has played or, you know, people in his inner circle have played. And that will make this upcoming fight, or, you know, War on Terror moniker -- you know, I don't like that, but let's just run with it -- the Second War on Terror, how the military approaches it, I think, you know, a distracted military will give these militants more space, and will really allow them to sort of dictate their terms. I think the situation in Afghanistan is especially critical. This morning, we heard that the Taliban have decided to continue their ban on girls' education. They're not OK with girls going to school. And so I think the Taliban are going to become a bigger problem for the international community. And, you know, Pakistan being their most important ally, is it going to face more pressure, more asks from the international community?
And if the generals and the political leaders are busy with their internal political squabbles, you know, I think their problem is going to be even more complicated to handle and solve. And then, amid all of this, this strategic rivalry is going to play out. I think we are at a crossroads of sorts on where great power competition goes. I think Pakistan should should be paying more attention to where the major powers are at, and what kind of choices they're making. I don't think Pakistan has quite played out the implications of its attempted alignment with the Russians. I don't think Pakistan is truly appreciating the costs of its enduring alignment with the Chinese. I think, you know, if the competition really picks up -- which I suspect it will over the next 12 to 24 months -- and, and Pakistani elites are not paying attention to that, I think Pakistan is going to suffer on that account as well.
KHAN: That's a hell of a crystal ball, Asfandyar Mir. Before I let all three of you go, 30 seconds. I know this is difficult, but it must be asked. 30 seconds, Madiha Afzal, for our listeners. Is this -- meaning Khan's ouster -- is this going to be a good thing or a bad thing, or none of the above, something else, for the people of Pakistan and beyond?
AFZAL: For the people of Pakistan, you know, the constant instability and its democracy is what has failed to deliver. And you know, I've written about this, starting in 1988, essentially, you know, we have not had a prime minister completing their five -year term in office. The electoral process basically is not valued as the factor that can actually vote out prime ministers' parties that are not performing. And it's always something else that comes in the way. So at this point, I think we should be clear: whether Khan stays or goes, the Pakistani people are losing, because of the built-in instability into the political system and the fact that the establishment continues to play a role in driving that instability.
KHAN: Uzair Younus?
YOUNUS: I think it's most definitely a bad thing. I agree with Madiha, that this constant struggle and strife in Pakistan's elite captured political economy is leading to a situation where the country has gone from being, having a higher GDP-per-capita than China in 1992, to being a global basket case. And I think the political elites in Pakistan, as well as the military elites in the country, are doing a disservice and injustice to the millions of Pakistani citizens who have ambitions and aspirations to be globally competitive and relevant. Um, let's remember the fact that this is a very young country, the majority of the population is under 30 years old. And so this round of instability is only the latest example of the crisis in Pakistan's political economy. And I think a lot more instability is around the corner.
KHAN: Asfandyar Mir, you on Khan. Is this going to be good, bad or just plain ugly?
MIR: So, I'm going to disagree with both the esteemed panelists. I think, Khan's downfall will be on balance a good thing for Pakistan's democracy. And the reason I say that is that, you know, I think Khan came to capture, over the last decade, perhaps more, the Pakistani military establishment's long-standing desire for a third alternative political force to mainstream political parties in the country. And such a force some generals envisioned -- you know, or they appear to have projected -- you know, would harmonize Pakistan's traditional national security priorities with discordant domestic politics that they have looked down upon without direct military interference. Which is why, you know, Khan received all this support from successive chiefs of the military in intelligence to essentially build up his political machine. But the fact that the military is now feeling pressured to distance itself from Khan, that they are, you know, rethinking the Khan model, I think it marks the defeat of that model of interference and manipulation, which was, I would argue, conceived after the 2008 transition to democracy. So in that sense, I, you know, I think this will, Khan, if he's ousted, and I think that's a big if, but if he is, it will provide an opening. The opposition is certainly not clean. The opposition has played games, is partnering with the military in the current moment, but I suspect that the the near-term scale and intensity of military interference that we saw over the last few years will probably come down, and we might have some space for for a new political conversation, some new rules of the game. The question is, can the you know, if the opposition can really capitalize on that opening? And there I'm, I you know, I'm not that optimistic. I think the opposition political parties have some some real weaknesses which they may not overcome. So, so there's that.
KHAN: Asfandyar Mir, Uzair Younus, Madiha Afzal, all from Washington, D.C. Thank you for your time. I've heard the weather's turned over there. You guys are getting cherry blossoms out there. I hope to make a trip out soon.
YOUNUS: You should most definitely come.
KHAN: All right, well, thank you again for your time and for talking to Asia Stream.
YOUNUS: Thank you.
AFZAL: Thanks, Wajahat, and thanks everyone.
MIR: Thanks, Wajahat.
KHAN: Thanks again to our panel. Just prior to publication, the timing of the no-confidence vote was unclear, but it seems likely to happen within the next week. Khan has encouraged his supporters to come to the capital and protest if the vote doesn't go his way. Is this going to be Khan's Jan. 6 Capitol Riot Trump moment? Groups like Human Rights Watch are warning about the potential for violence. The country's largest journalist association has warned that "anti-democratic" forces -- Pakistan-speak for the army -- will take advantage of the moment and that this could even result in a coup. That's it for Asia Stream this week.
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KHAN: As always, I encourage you to head to Nikkei Asia at asia.nikkei.com for more in-depth coverage of Pakistan and all things related to Asia. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share, subscribe and leave us a review -- and hopefully, a five-star rating! And a reminder that Nikkei Asia is currently offering an exclusive discount for our podcast listeners: just type in the code ASIASTREAM, all caps, no spaces, at checkout when you visit asia.nikkei.com. This episode was produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt. I'm your host, Waj Khan.
We'll be back, like a stream come true, next week.
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