Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) won him kudos from his domestic political base, drew criticism from his opponents and continues to be fiercely debated upon back home.
His visit was touted as super successful by the deep state-backed propaganda machine, even called another world cup win – a throwback to his cricketing days. However, a curious development happened right after his return. Maleeha Lodhi – Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN, and the ostensible manager of the so-called world cup-winning team – was unceremoniously let go. Lodhi has been an envoy to Washington, London and New York during Pakistan’s assorted quasi-democratic governments and a military regime.
For all practical purposes, the army’s representative in the US for years, she has now been replaced, even more curiously, by Munir Akram – another army favourite who had previously held the same position during the Pervez Musharraf regime.
Akram’s claim to fame, or notoriety to be precise, is two-fold: First, he was charged with assaulting his girlfriend by smashing her head into a wall, while he was Pakistan’s representative at the UN. The US had asked Pakistan to strip him of his diplomatic immunity so that he could be prosecuted but nothing came of it. Secondly, the man is known for threatening nuclear Armageddon at the drop of a hat. Akram’s diplomatic success, if there ever was any, pales against his nuclear war-mongering and alleged domestic abuse. He is perhaps the most jingoistic Pakistani diplomat to have served at the UN. He continued to raise the spectre of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan in his writings after that stint. So why him, why now?
The answer to that question lies in how his appointment dovetailed, albeit brusquely, with Imran Khan’s speech, and the cheerleading which followed.
Asif Ghafoor gloats
Among the first to gloat over Khan’s thinly-veiled threat – which he had called a warning – of a nuclear war, with fallout beyond South Asia, was the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations (DG-ISPR) Major General Asif Ghafoor. The general re-tweeted from his verified personal account, “27 Feb….27 Sep [sic]”, a reference both to Pakistan capturing an Indian pilot after an aerial skirmish earlier this year, and Imran Khan pledging to fight on, in case of an all-out war.
When some of us called the DG-ISPR out over his tweet, he responded in a manner unbecoming of both his office and rank. In the process, however, he gave away the fact that Khan’s statement – “we will fight” – right after reciting the Kalima or Muslim pledge of faith, is actually the Pakistan army’s preferred way of raising the threat of war. Invoking mutually-assured nuclear destruction, followed by a religious incantation and a threat to fight on, was a message straight from GHQ’s script. This, despite the fact that it has become increasingly clear that India has successfully called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff over the past couple of years. In the process, the threshold for a conventional war has been reset to India’s advantage.
Pakistan had previously succeeded in prosecuting its foreign policy objectives through jihadist proxies, under the shadow of a mushroom cloud. The unstated threat – don’t respond to our jihadist moves or there will be nuclear war. However, India’s conventional retaliation to the Uri and Pulwama attacks, though tactically uneventful, shifted the strategic paradigm: there can be limited, kinetic engagement in retaliation for terrorism, without tripping the nuclear wire. The net result was that after Modi’s unconstitutional move to end the special status of Jammu and Kashmir state, Pakistan was virtually boxed-in and unable to respond in any meaningful manner.
Cash-strapped, economically-struggling and diplomatically-isolated, the Imran Khan regime – under the tutelage of Pakistan army – could literally do nothing in the aftermath of India scrapping Article 370. The Pakistan army, and its political offspring, Imran Khan, lost face at home and abroad. There is absolutely no doubt that the Pakistan army is neither capable of nor willing to fight a conventional war outside the country’s border. With economic investments ranging from producing corn flakes to movies and developing housing societies to dairy farming, the Pakistan army is as much – or more – a business house as a fighting machine. It has neither won a foreign war, nor intends to fight one now. But it wishes to keep the pots simmering in Kashmir and Afghanistan through the use of jihadist terrorism al la Lashkar, Jaish and Taliban. To do so, however, without any fear of retaliation, it desperately needs the nuclear umbrella.
What Imran Khan tried to do at the UNGA was to regain for Pakistan’s military establishment that nuclear threat advantage – where it can blackmail the world into tolerating its jihadist proxy warfare. There was a method to Imran Khan’s ranting and rambling madness, as there has been to that of his army patrons for decades: scare the living daylights out of the international community that if hurt militarily or economically, Pakistan will resort to the use of its nuclear weapons. It is a naked threat, albeit a faux one.
One can count on seeing more of that with Munir Akram coming back to the UN. Pakistan’s game-plan in the months ahead is simple: count on unrest in Kashmir due to the Modi government’s highhandedness, try to stoke a fire in the Valley, and brandish a nuclear threat to preempt Indian retaliation. The net result of this time-tested formula, however, won’t be the liberation of Kashmir but the cementing of the Pakistan army’s controlling position in the country and the safeguarding of its political and business interests. Imran Khan is happy to peddle this poison, as it helps him keep his job.
Laments Islamophobia, but ignorant of abuses in Pak
Imran stood at the UNGA podium lamenting Islamophobia in the West, while the Shia Muslims live in ghettos in Pakistan and the Ahmadis are ostracised out of his own government. Shias and Ahmadis have sustained scores of casualties at the hands of Imran Khan’s darling Taliban and other assorted jihadists. His own party members ran their elections campaign on an anti-Ahmadi platform. Khan has been asked multiple times about China’s persecution of its Uighur Muslims, and every time he has pleaded ignorance about the issue. One really has to be living in a bubble to not know about China’s brutal oppression of the Muslims. But that’s not it. Pakistan, under Khan’s leadership, signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Council defending China’s detention of Uighur Muslims.
The army-backed Khan regime also absolved its financial benefactor, Saudi Arabia, of bombing the hapless Yemeni Muslims. As Khan spoke from both sides of his mouth at the UN, Pakistan voted against a UN probe into Saudi war crimes in Yemen. Inside Pakistan, the Khan regime has locked up, at the behest of its military mentors, political opponents including former prime ministers and a president on trumped-up graft charges.
In many ways, Khan’s UNGA appearance was a cheap imitation of another Pakistani premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s December 1971 speech at the UN Security Council. Bhutto’s speech was followed by a tragedy; Khan’s pantomime would be followed by a farce. The Pakistani prime minister’s aim was to throw a lifeline to his army sponsors, not the Kashmiris. Both the Kashmiris, and the world at large, can expect more verbal fire and fury with the hiring of Akram, but nothing of substance. The tragedy, after this travesty at the UNGA, however, is that the Kashmiri people would continue to be denied their fundamental human rights, let alone the right to self-determination.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.