During Pakistan’s national election campaign last year, Imran Khan was dismissed by detractors as a political lightweight and foreign policy novice who relied on populism and deference to the country’s influential military for support.
Now, just over six months into his role as Prime Minister, those claims are being tested, as Khan finds his country closer to war with its nuclear-armed neighbor, India, than at any point in the past 20 years.
The crisis began earlier this month when a suicide car bomb attack in Pulwama, in Indian-administered Kashmir, killed 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers.
India blamed the attack on a Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and said Pakistan itself had a “direct hand” in it.
Tensions escalated even more this week, with an Indian airstrike on Pakistani soil, followed by retaliatory measures by Pakistani forces that resulted in the capture of an Indian pilot.
Inexperience or fresh perspective?
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the US-based Wilson Center, says the crisis will likely give Khan’s popularity a boost.
“In Pakistan there’s nothing like aggression from India to rally the people,” he said. “The fact that Pakistan had India come into the country to stage these airstrikes, it’s an embarrassment for the military. But the entire country will rally round Imran Kahn to support him.”
However, Kugelman said this is a political test for Khan, who formed his own party 23 years ago.
“He certainly is a neophyte, he has no experience as a national leader, he’s been a politician for a number of years but hasn’t been in a position of national power,” he added.
A speech the Pakistani leader gave Wednesday, in which he pledged to return the captured pilot and advocated dialogue over further escalation, has cooled heads and shown Khan has more control of the narrative than some may have expected.
“This is a real test. Domestically, it’s the first crisis of his administration,” said Madiha Afzal, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. “(However) I feel that he is passing the test right now. I’m seeing reactions from people who may otherwise be critical are glowing about how he is handling things.”
She said that Pakistanis generally felt Khan had acted in a “measured” way – which could ultimately open the door “for both parties to sit down.”
“Now the ball is in (India Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s court. (Khan) says Pakistan is done – it would take further action from India to re-escalate (violence).”
Pakistan watchers are also wary of the influence the military holds over the Khan government’s foreign policy.
“We know that it is the military in the driving seat – Khan is on board and is the public face,” Afzal said.
It is an age-old problem in Pakistani politics, and one that has previously led the country down more aggressive paths.
“(The military is) pro-conflict. After 1971, the (last) time that India struck inside Pakistan, it rubbed the Pakistani military’s ego very badly,” Ayesha Siddiqa, analyst and research associate at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies South Asia Institute, told CNN. “What analysts are saying and writing now is that they’re baying for blood.”
So is Khan in the pocket of the military, or is he being pragmatic in developing this relationship?
“We’ve seen what has happened with previous Pakistani prime ministers who have not been supplicant to military – they haven’t been able to accomplish anything,” Pakistan journalist Rafia Zakaria said.
“It’s difficult to tell if it’s motivated by Machiavellian politics of the state, if he’s somehow beholden to (the military) or he looks at Pakistani history and says, ‘If I want to govern, this relationship is primary and I have to make it work’.”
Siddiqa says JeM, the terror group India accused of the deadly attack on troops in India-controlled Kashmir, now seems missing from the conversation.
“Currently it’s very bilateral, no one is taking about what to do with the non-state actors,” she said.
So what happens if Khan breaks with the army’s policy of not overtly targeting militant groups? Afzal says the Prime Minister is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“There’s a sense that Pakistan may take some steps” to confront Pakistan-based militant groups, she said.
“If Modi accepts Khan’s effort to engage in talks, (and) asks Khan to remove JeM entirely, at that point the military and he may not be on the same page. And that will be a test of his relationship with the military.”
Zakaria added that Pakistanis “don’t want war at all – they’re really quite tired of it.”
The country has seen “anguish on every level,” she said, including the massacre of more than schoolchildren in an army boarding school in 2014, and is “not quite as infatuated with extremism as they were 10 years ago.”