Is Imran’s global charm offensive a game-changer? By Bilal Lakhani


“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” George Bernard Shaw famously said, arguably describing the state of Pakistan’s diplomacy and global narrative building in the last two decades.

Over 60,000 dead in the War on Terror and $100 billion in losses to the economy, yet we are toasted as a global migraine for world leaders, instead of being feted as the only country to decisively defeat terrorists at home.

Fortunately, this can change as Imran Khan bursts onto the world stage after establishing himself as a global leader at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The number one rule of public relations is to change the existing terms of debate if you’re unhappy with how you’re being portrayed. Imran Khan speaking passionately about climate change, Islamophobia and leading with a humanitarian (versus Pakistani) position on Kashmir, has broken every box the world stuffed Pakistan into.
In this piece, I’ll unpack how Pakistan can take strategic advantage of its new trump card on the global stage: Imran Khan.

First, we have to understand the gravity of Imran Khan’s speech at the UNGA. India is superior to Pakistan economically, diplomatically and strategically. India is trying to land on the moon while we try to land a uniform moon sighting to start Ramzan. Yet, Trump repeatedly brought up mediation on Kashmir during his private meetings with Modi, with the Americans releasing a statement asking for a rapid easing of restrictions in Kashmir. Exactly which card in Pakistan’s pocket played so well for us? A bankrupt economy, a decade of diplomatic isolation, or Imran Khan?

What the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) hasn’t been able to do in domestic politics, Imran Khan pulled off for Pakistan at a global stage. No longer do we engage in arguments whose terms are set by others: do more. That debate only had two responses: the anger of a jilted lover crying ungratefulness or being apologetic. Instead, we now present a positive vision of the world and Pakistan’s place in it — Pakistan fighting for trade versus aid to arrest transfer of wealth from poor countries to rich ones; demolishing the Islamophobic argument that every Muslim freedom fighter is a terrorist — even before he got to Kashmir.

Against a lesser competitor, Modi might have brought up Kashmir during his UN address, arguing the economic dividends of its annexation. Modi had asked the Americans to force Imran Khan to tone down the rhetoric on Kashmir (causing my stomach to churn when he took so long to address the issue during his speech).

But Imran stood his ground because he has nurtured the credibility and relationships — in this case with Trump — to forcefully air his viewpoint. And this is a strategic capability Pakistan hasn’t had in a long time. Imran Khan personally trumps Modi on the global stage.

So, how does Pakistan deploy Imran Khan strategically to its advantage? We need to see him more engaged in global diplomacy. He alone is trusted enough by Trump and the Taliban to land an Afghan peace deal. Desi liberals will have a field day with this statement but it is true and a strategic advantage for Pakistan.

Tempting Trump with that elusive Nobel Peace Prize for bringing peace to Afghanistan is the conduit for growing pressure on Modi to ease the situation in Kashmir.

If Imran Khan will go down in history as one of the greatest leaders to have ruled Pakistan, it won’t be because of his political acumen, economic policy or social justice reform. It’s his decisions in the foreign policy space that will be remembered and determine the future for generations.

Imran Khan provides Pakistan with a rare window of opportunity to pivot from being clumsy cleaners of the mess great powers dump at our doorstep, to a force for peace in the region and good in the world. Here’s to hoping Pakistan and Imran Khan seize the moment before it’s too late.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 6th, 2019.