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US watches carefully as Pakistan's political crisis deepens

Anwar Iqbal in Washington, D.C.
April 6, 2023

The current crisis in Pakistan is being watched keenly in Washington — although not as eagerly as many Pakistanis believe — as the possibility of a nuclear-armed country spinning out of control alarms many.

Supporters of former Pakistan's prime minister Imran Khan block a road near his residence to prevent officers from arresting him, in Lahore on March 15, 2023
Former PM Imran Khan is demanding early elections in PakistanImage: Aamir Qureshi/FP

US President Joe Biden's administration — which had maintained a safe distance from the former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan even when he was in power — has so far avoided getting involved in  the political dispute that has pitched Khan against a coalition government of more than a dozen political parties and the country's powerful military.

Every time the issue is raised at an official briefing in Washington, the answer highlights two points: the United States has no favorites in this fight, and it wants the crisis to be resolved in accordance with the Pakistani constitution.

Even while rejecting Khan's claim that the Biden administration played a key role in bringing down his government, Washington has carefully avoided making comments that would be seen as opposing him.

US officials have also avoided referring to Khan's statements supporting Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, although the US media never shied away from highlighting his alleged sympathy for the Islamic fundamentalist group.

Constitutional supremacy

At a recent briefing, a spokesman for the US State Department emphasized the importance of allowing the people of Pakistan to elect their future leadership while commenting on the current situation.

The question put to the spokesperson, Vedant Patel, not only sought his opinion on the "political chaos" in the South Asian nation but also claimed that Pakistani Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah had issued death threats to Imran Khan in a live TV show.

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This was an obvious attempt to encourage him to say something that could then be underlined as an expression of support for Khan. But Patel evaded the trap.

"Any implication of violence, harassment, or intimidation has no place in politics," he said. "We encourage all sides in Pakistan to respect the rule of law and allow the people of Pakistan to democratically determine their own country's leadership pursuant to their own constitution and laws."

This was a carefully crafted response, which left enough space for both the government and Khan's center-right Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to find elements of support in it, without the US appearing to favor either.

'Avert a meltdown'

But other commentators have been more open in sharing their views. Diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad — who served as the special envoy for Afghan reconciliation under both the Donald Trump and Biden administrations — reminded Pakistani politicians in a recent statement that their dispute was hurting their nation and was also a cause of concern for others.

"Pakistan faces a triple crisis: political, economic, and security. Despite great potential, it is underperforming and falling far behind its archrival, India. It is time for serious soul-searching, bold thinking, and strategizing," he wrote in a tweet.

The former US envoy — who worked closely with Pakistan while negotiating a deal with the Afghan Taliban — also criticized the Pakistani government for jailing political leaders, particularly hinting at the recent police attempts to arrest Imran Khan.

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He proposed holding general elections in early July to "avert a meltdown." And when the country's Supreme Court ordered the election commission to hold elections in the Punjab province on May 14, he urged the government to "implement" it as "a first necessary step to avoid (the) meltdown."

Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted strongly to Khalilzad's remarks, urging him not to offer unsolicited advice. But the State Department maintained its neutrality, saying only that the former US envoy made this statement "in his private capacity, (and) it does not represent US foreign policy."

Possibility of a military takeover

Other US scholars, however, shared Khalilzad's concern. Michael Kugelman of Washington's Wilson Center warned that Pakistan's "political environment appears too charged to allow for deescalation. Eventually, something has to give, and it may not be pretty."

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari also addressed this "eventuality" in his latest statement on the situation, warning that the crisis, if not defused, could lead to "a martial law or emergency-like situation."

Marvin Weinbaum, a senior US scholar who has written several books on Pakistan, endorsed these concerns, telling DW that for the first time in the country's history, a political "government is attempting to put into practice the country's infamous 'doctrine of necessity' without formally proclaiming it or seeking Supreme Court ratification."

This situation, he warned, could lead to a military takeover if not addressed immediately.

Time magazine, which published a title page article on Imran Khan in its latest edition, highlighted another issue — the impact of this crisis on the Islamic country's ailing economy.

Pakistan: A country 'ripe for a revolution'

The article pointed out that Pakistan was "the world's fifth most populous country," which "has only $4.6 billion (€4.2 billion) in foreign reserves — $20 per citizen."

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Cameron Munter, a former US ambassador to Pakistan, while talking to the Time magazine, also raised the possibility of Pakistan's economic meltdown.

"If they default, and they can't get oil, companies go bust, and people don't have jobs, you would say this is a country ripe for a Bolshevik revolution," Munter said.

Atif Mian, a professor of economics at Princeton University, blamed Pakistan's "judiciary, politicians, and generals" for this situation.

"The last couple of years have witnessed a level of chaos, infighting, and jostling for selfish power grabs that has brought the country to this catastrophe," Mian said in a series of tweets he posted on Wednesday.

Edited by: Shamil Shams