People watch screens showing a speech by Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), also known as Movement for Justice, at a store in Karachi, Pakistan. (Photographer: Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg)

Skeptical India Wonders If Pakistan’s Army Backs Khan’s Peace Push

(Bloomberg) -- Imran Khan announced victory in Pakistan’s election and immediately caused a stir by saying his government was open to peace talks with his country’s historic foe India. “If you take one step forward, we will take two steps forward,” he said. “We need to move ahead.”

The disbelief in India, however, speaks to what analysts say is a fundamental truth about Pakistan. The country’s key foreign and national security policies -- including relations with India, China and U.S. -- are decided by Pakistan’s powerful generals, who have ruled the country for much of its 71-year history.

“The army will not allow the prime minister to take these decisions,” said Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think-tank. “He has to do them in lockstep with the army.”

The doubt extended to India’s media, with the Economic Times editorial headlined ‘Army back in the saddle in Pakistan’, while the Hindustan Times editorial states: "By extending a hand of friendship, Khan has been politically correct and scored diplomatic points. The test, however, will lie in how much freedom his own army will give him on India; that is strictly their domain."

That reality will constrain Khan’s foreign policy ambitions as he takes power in Islamabad amid high hopes that he can revive the country’s struggling economy.

Analysts see Khan as a pliant prime minister who won’t challenge the army’s hold over foreign and national security policies that have defined the nuclear-armed nation’s role in world affairs for decades. But Pakistan’s election of the former playboy cricketer could still shake up the region. His victory elevates an outspoken critic of U.S. policy, opening the door to potential clashes with President Donald Trump, who angrily cut off military aid for Pakistan earlier this year.

One winner may be China, which has offered more than $60 billion of loans for infrastructure projects as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. During an interview with Bloomberg News earlier this month, Khan didn’t rule out renegotiating the opaque Chinese contracts. However, the lack of realistic alternative investors meant he used part of his victory speech to emphasize he wanted closer economic ties with China.

“Our neighbor is China, we will further strengthen our relations with it,” Khan said during his televised statement on Thursday. “The CPEC project which China started in Pakistan will give us chance to bring in investment to Pakistan -- we’ll send team to learn what steps they took to alleviate poverty. We can also learn how China countered corruption, the measures they took.”

Testing Waters

Khan, 65, whose courtship of Pakistan’s fringe Islamists has prompted critics to label him “Taliban Khan,” has a history of strident rhetoric on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. He’s blamed the U.S. presence in the region for stoking militancy that has devastated both countries and has previously pledged to shoot down U.S. anti-terrorist drones.

Analysts have suggested Pakistan’s generals preferred Khan because he will not challenge the army. Khan has denied those claims, telling Bloomberg News in early July that the army was filling a vacuum because Pakistan has “such incompetent people dealing with a government’s foreign policy.”

His immediate outreach to India stands in contrast to his previous comments on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who he called an “anti-Muslim politician” in an interview with Bloomberg News last year. Khan said Modi’s handling of the 2002 riots in Gujarat -- where roughly 1,000 people were killed, mostly Muslims -- constitutes “a black mark on Indian society.”

Peace talks with India, even if Pakistan’s army wanted them, are not likely ahead of India’s 2019 general election, said Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at London’s Chatham House. “If the army changes its policy, Imran Khan will implement that, but he won’t come up with it,” Price said.

Khan, who captained Pakistan’s national cricket team to World Cup victory in 1992, could assuage worries in the U.S. by appointing a foreign minister with strong American contacts, said Uzair Younus, a South Asia director at Washington-based consultancy Albright Stonebridge Group LLC. Khan’s political party might also take a “closer look” at Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, Younus said. “There’ll be some testing of the waters,” he said, noting that significant changes are unlikely.

However, overseas issues will probably be the “last thing on anyone’s mind” amid pressing domestic concerns, said Shamila Chaudhary, a former White House and State Department official.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.