By Jonathan Landay and Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam
WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD, April 10 (Reuters) – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted in a vote of no confidence in parliament on Sunday morning after three years and seven months in office.
A new government is likely to be formed under opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif, after parliament convenes on Monday to vote for a new prime minister.
The nation of more than 220 million people lies between Afghanistan to the west, China to the northeast and India to the east, giving it vital strategic importance.
Since coming to power in 2018, Khan’s rhetoric has become more anti-American, and he has expressed a desire to get closer to China and, recently, Russia – including talks with President Vladimir Putin on 24 February, the day of the invasion of Ukraine. has begun.
Meanwhile, US and Asian foreign policy experts said Pakistan’s mighty military has traditionally controlled foreign and defense policy, but Khan’s acerbic public rhetoric has impacted a number of key relationships.
Here’s what the upheaval, which comes as the economy is in deep trouble, means for countries closely involved in Pakistan:
Ties between Pakistan’s military intelligence agency and Taliban Islamist militants have loosened in recent years.
Now that the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan and facing an economic and humanitarian crisis due to lack of money and international isolation, Qatar is arguably their most important foreign partner.
“We (the United States) don’t need Pakistan as an intermediary to the Taliban. Qatar is definitely playing that role now,” said Lisa Curtis, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. think-Char.
Tensions have risen between the Taliban and the Pakistani army, which has lost several soldiers in attacks near their common border. Pakistan wants the Taliban to do more to suppress extremist groups and fears they will spread violence in Pakistan. It has already started to happen.
Khan had been less critical of the Taliban on human rights issues than most foreign leaders.
Khan has consistently stressed China’s positive role in Pakistan and the world at large.
Meanwhile, the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that connects the neighbors has been conceptualized and launched under Pakistan’s two established political parties, both of which are to share power in the new government.
Potential successor Sharif, the younger brother of former three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, struck deals directly with China as leader of the eastern province of Punjab, and his reputation for kickstarting big infrastructure while avoiding political grandstanding could actually be music to Beijing’s ears.
The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought three wars since independence in 1947, including two in the disputed Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir.
As with Afghanistan, the Pakistani military controls politics in the hotspot, and tensions along the de facto border there are at their lowest level since 2021, thanks to a ceasefire. .
But there have been no formal diplomatic talks between the rivals for years due to deep mistrust over a range of issues, including Khan’s extreme criticism of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his handling of the attacks. against Muslim minorities in India.
Karan Thapar, an Indian political commentator who has followed India-Pakistan relations closely, said the Pakistani military could pressure the new government in Islamabad to build on the successful ceasefire. in Kashmir.
Powerful Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa recently said his country was ready to advance on Kashmir if India agreed.
The Sharif dynasty has been at the forefront of several accommodating overtures to India over the years.
US South Asia experts have said the political crisis in Pakistan is unlikely to be a priority for President Joe Biden, who is grappling with the war in Ukraine, unless it leads to massive unrest or a rise in tensions with India.
“We have so many more fish to fry,” said Robin Raphel, former assistant secretary of state for South Asia, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
With the Pakistani military retaining behind-the-scenes control of foreign and security policy, a change of government was not a major concern, some analysts said.
“Since it is the military who decide the policies that really interest the United States, i.e. Afghanistan, India and nuclear weapons, internal political developments in Pakistan are largely irrelevant to the United States,” said Curtis, who was then U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Council Senior Director for South Asia.
She added that Khan’s visit to Moscow had been a “disaster” in terms of relations with the United States, and that a new government in Islamabad could at least help mend ties “to some extent”.
Khan blamed the United States for the current political crisis, saying Washington wanted him fired because of the recent trip to Moscow. Washington denies any role.
(Additional reporting and writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Mike Collett-White, Nick Macfie and Jonathan Oatis)