Pakistan’s Pivot to Asia

Imran Khan is addressing his nation's challenges by choosing liberally from a menu of Western and Asian futures.

Imran Khan
Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters

Just a few years ago, the news out of Pakistan would have sent official Washington into a tailspin. But with cable TV broadcasting Trump nonstop, few bothered to even note that a champion cricketer turned populist firebrand, Imran Khan, won the election as prime minister this summer. Nor did many pause over the fact that Khan won that election with the backing of an increasingly pro-Chinese military, or that he promised to pull Pakistan “out of the War on Terror,” or that he’s now presiding over a financial collapse. The most significant coverage Khan gets is as a comic oddity on The Daily Show, where he’s been mocked as an “even more tanned version of Donald Trump.”

The Trump effect means that America is missing the new geopolitics emerging across the world. Nowhere have I felt this more intensely than in Pakistan, where I traveled to interview the then-candidate Khan last October. Khan is much more than a celebrity clinging to his looks and lusting for power. He provides a glimpse into what the post-American world might look like: a chaotic stage where strongmen find themselves buffeted by Western, Arab, and Chinese forces.

When I arrived at my hotel in Islamabad, staff complained about how quiet things had become. Just a few years ago, at the height of the War on Terror, the capital had been abuzz with journalists and CIA agents in transit out of Afghanistan. Now, I was told, the most common guests were Chinese businessmen.

This was the new Pakistan, which Khan said should reject American power. In the 1970s, when Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto attempted—and failed—to distance Pakistan from the Western bloc, going so far as to wear a Mao cap and promise “Islamic socialism,” there were no giant Asian economies to back him up. Pakistan was then a state where China and the Gulf felt far away. Today, both can be felt almost everywhere.

Pakistani TV commercials feature friendly Chinese neighbors; pork, prohibited for sale under Pakistan’s Islamic-inspired law, is available in Chinese shops; enormous billboards announce construction sites for the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.” Pakistan is a centerpiece of Chinese foreign policy, at the heart of a projected $1 trillion worth of investments, loans, and infrastructure projects around the globe known as the “Belt and Road Initiative.”

You can see Arab globalization at work in Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, where every day thousands of migrant workers take off for Dubai, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi, and hundreds of imams and pilgrims unload from Saudi Arabia. Economic migrants and religious students not only bring back an Arabized Islam from the Gulf; they also make Islam’s ancient dream of the Ummah, the world commonwealth of believers, feel real through their mobility.

But it would be a mistake to think the West is no longer present. English proficiency in Pakistan has soared in Khan’s lifetime, spreading from a small handful of elites to a large share of the general population, according to the British Council. Accordingly, Pakistan’s English-language media and an Anglo-linked fashion and film industry have boomed.

None of this is to suggest that Pakistan is a healthy country. A ramshackle and militarized state that has received 12 IMF bailouts since the late 1980s, it is surrounded by rising Asia but not part of it. At independence in 1947, it had higher living standards than China and India. Now it’s fallen far behind these two neighbors. Even Bangladesh has surpassed Pakistan in terms of both exports and life expectancy. And by some measures, Bangladesh has now overtaken Pakistan in GDP per capita as well.

As a candidate, Khan tried to address his country’s frustrations by choosing liberally from a menu of Western and Asian futures. He promised a “China Model,” an “Islamic welfare state,” and “British-style” social security, while pledging to ditch U.S. aid, which “enslaves the country.”

But it took Khan a while to arrive at this fusion-populist persona, which proved so winning with the Pakistani public.

“I’m probably the most famous Pakistani ever in its history,” was how Khan summed himself up to me last October. And that wasn’t an absurd boast. Americans can grasp Khan’s celebrity in Pakistan by imagining Donald Trump and Michael Jordan combined into one megastar.

Khan left Pakistan at 17 to play cricket and studied at Oxford University, then became captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team. When Khan returned home after winning the 1992 World Cup, the crowds were so huge it took hours for his car to get beyond the airport: He had done the unimaginable and beaten England at its own game in the final. “Memories of colonialism were very close then,” said Khan.

He was a symbol of Pakistani success in the West, and of the potential for Pakistan to triumph over the West.

In 1996, he launched himself into politics as the head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, a new party. At the time, he thought it wise to underline his proximity to Europe. He toured Pakistan with his first wife, Jemima Goldsmith, the daughter of an Anglo-French Jewish billionaire, and twice hosted Princess Diana with public fanfare in Lahore.

These days, he does his utmost to disassociate himself from Europe and the United States. He told me that he has almost entirely given up Western dress. “Having to leave Pakistan now is for me the worst thing,” he said. The man who brought Princess Diana to Pakistan now routinely castigates blasphemers and prays at the tombs of saints with his third wife, a spiritual leader, who wears a glistening white veil.

Nevertheless, Khan remains deeply linked to the English-speaking world. He is the father of two British sons with his first wife and is an enthusiastic follower of British politics. When I asked Khan’s finance minister, Asad Umar, what had surprised him most about his leader as he got to know him, he said: “He’s incredibly English. I don’t know anyone else in Pakistan who will say ‘gosh.’ He’ll quote Shakespeare. He’s … very English.”

Breaking out into a grin, Umar continued: “He’ll talk about English politics in mainstream rallies with half a million people standing in front of him, 98 percent of whom don’t give a rat’s ass about what happens in England, and he’ll go into great detail about the expenses scandal and how the English system reacted to it, or how the jury system in England will work and how Parliament responds. Even I have said, ‘For heaven’s sake, stop quoting what happens in England.’”

Just like populist firebrands in the West, Khan ran for prime minister furiously campaigning against the elite (although he is, of course, a member of the elite). They were “corrupt mafiosi” who had “humiliated Pakistani.” And just like populist firebrands in the West, his plan for Pakistan was hard to categorize between left and right: a religiously tinged promise to take the brakes off social spending and stamp out corruption.

I stood behind Khan onstage at his rally in Mandi Bahauddin last October, so close I worried he might knock me over as he gesticulated furiously. “The Prophet Muhammad was a politician,” he told an audience of 20,000. But instead of dropping Quranic edicts, he promised “an Islamic welfare” like that available “in Britain and Scandinavia.” For his closing note, he said that under his leadership, Pakistan would rise like China. Khan thundered: “China has improved the living standards of 700 million people. We must work along those lines.”

When I drove back to Islamabad with Khan, the future prime minister outlined his post-American foreign policy. It was simple enough: no more U.S. military aid, drone attacks, and proxy wars.

Khan believed that the price Pakistan paid to be a “major non-NATO ally” in the War on Terror was too high. Direct lines to the U.S. president, scores of F-16s, and military-aid packages from the Pentagon were not worth what Khan called the “billions and billions of damage.”

Becoming “a frontline state” for the U.S. in Afghanistan, said Khan, “was the worst thing we ever did for our society,” fueling gun violence, heroin addiction, and religious radicalization.

Pakistan, Khan announced, would “no longer be a client state” under his leadership. It “would wean itself off from the aid syndrome” and henceforth “stop fighting other people’s wars,” like the one on the Taliban. “Drone strikes must end,” he said, demanding that the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and cease operations inside it.

The only solution in Afghanistan, he told me, was the one that formally acknowledged the end of American hegemony by bringing Washington’s rivals into the settlement. “Peace in Afghanistan will not come,” said Khan, “unless all the neighbors—Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States—sit down at a table and come up with a negotiated settlement.”

I’d heard that Khan’s most fervent new supporters were the poor and working class of Karachi, but had a hard time understanding what they saw in an Oxford-educated friend of Mick Jagger. So I joined the local Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Ali Zaidi on a tour of the slums: miles upon miles of tottering concrete homes cut through with rivers of raw sewage, an enormous recruiting ground for low-wage labor.

Each time the car reached a party outpost, the local activists switched on “the Imran Khan song” before Zaidi, now one of Khan’s ministers, promised a “Naya Pakistan”—a new Pakistan. When I asked Khan’s future voters what place the “Naya Pakistan” would most resemble, the answers were remarkably consistent: Dubai, or Riyadh, or Abu Dhabi. The cities glittering in their minds over the water. They had family, brothers, cousins, and sons working in “Saudia,” these supporters proudly told me, sometimes pointing to their Facebook messages and WhatsApps on their phones, as if I would not otherwise believe them.

“He’s selling Pakistanis a dream,” said Umar, the finance minister, in the cool of his home in the elite neighborhood of Defense. “But he’s not a con man.” Khan, to him, was not an ideologue or a populist, but a genius at what Umar called “PR.”

That dream, quite clearly, is that Pakistan can join rising Asia—that it will come to resemble Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, where many Pakistanis have worked, and from which they receive remittances. Seen from the slums of Karachi, “Saudia” is not a synonym for backwardness.

Khan’s middle-class supporters, whom I met in Defense, Clifton, and Karachi’s other fancy areas, also dreamt of rising Asia. Their daughters looked to Malaysian YouTube stars for the latest hijab styles. One businessman said he would have liked to run a company from London, but it would have been nostalgic and inconvenient since the goods from all his warehouses ended up in China. Many of these businessmen had flats in Dubai and financial ties to Singapore.

Many business elites I spoke with had a political as well as economic enthusiasm for what they saw in China, Dubai, and Singapore: free-market authoritarianism. This put them on the same page as Imran Khan. “He’s always been impressed by the former head of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew,” Imran Khan’s nephew Shershah Khan told me in Lahore. “He keeps mentioning him.”

Perhaps because Pakistan’s globalized middle classes no longer aspire exclusively to Western-style economies, they no longer seem to aspire uniquely to Western liberalism, either. At any rate, Khan’s clear ties to the military didn’t put them off.

Khan has long been accused of being a tool of Pakistan’s shadowy network of generals, judges, and intelligence chiefs known as “the Establishment.” Khan admitted to me that he “brainstormed” with Hamid Gul, the notorious intelligence chief, before entering politics. But he snapped at me when I asked if he was colluding with the military. “What is it the military is doing wrong that I have backed?”

There was no collusion, according to Khan, just shared values: Like Khan, the military wanted to put China first, punish the old political class, and move away from the United States.

When Khan’s victory came in July, EU election observers condemned “systematic attempts to undermine the ruling party.” The triumphant Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf shrugged off accusations that the military had picked winners and losers, but didn’t bother to mount a robust defense. Khan clearly believed that he no longer had to play by Western rules.

After his election, however, he found the West indispensable after all.

By the time Khan was sworn in as prime minister in August, Pakistan was in the midst of a balance-of-payments crisis that had been building for months.

There were several triggers for the crisis. Pakistan imports more than it exports, and its large trade deficit has left it highly vulnerable. This summer, the price of oil began to rise and the American Federal Reserve raised interest rates. Streams of money left emerging markets for better returns in the United States. Pakistan’s currency fell, and Islamabad burned through its reserves. All along, Islamabad had been borrowing money and importing machinery from Beijing to pay for Belt and Road projects, making matters worse.

Asia’s new geopolitics tightened the squeeze. In September, the Pentagon said it had made a final decision to cancel $300 million in aid to Pakistan, citing inadequate action on Taliban-linked militants operating in the country.

Khan’s government sought a bailout from China last month. But Beijing only offered short-term financing. The rising power refused to play the role of lender of last resort, choosing instead to let its loans work as a debt trap. Khan flew to Saudi Arabia seeking a bailout there, but he returned empty-handed.

Finally, this month, Khan’s government officially sought yet another bailout from the IMF for up to $8 billion. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made clear that it would only come with strings attached—including a guarantee that the money would not be used to repay loans to Beijing. Pakistan will also have to share with the IMF the details of China’s secretive loans.

Thus the balance of power in Islamabad is now clear: American political power is retreating; American dollar power is not. China may be rising fast, but it’s not yet a counterpart to Western financial institutions, nor is it ready to dictate Pakistani finances like the IMF.

In more ways than one, Pakistan shows what geopolitics will look like after American hegemony. It will be an intensely fluid, messier world. Different political and economic models, not just Western ones, will appeal to elites. The U.S. and China will compete, and they will both wield enormous influence at once. Both Western and Chinese finance will be in play. There will be no simple power shift from one hegemon to another.

The new world of several great empires, with none dominant, might resemble the precolonial era more than the recent past. As we drove across the Punjab, Khan spoke extensively of his ancestors: the 16th-century Pashtun warrior princes who had ruled between Safavid Persia and the Mughal emperors, and who’d met Western merchants on the trade routes to Ming China. They, too, had lived in a polycentric age in which the West was one pole, but not supreme.