Can Imran bring Pak. in from the diplomatic cold?

ISLAMABAD: Tensions with Afghanistan, faltering relations with the U.S., and chronically poor ties with India. Pakistan today stands isolated, observers say, and bringing it back into the fold is a formidable task for its new premier Imran Khan.

“We have a very big foreign policy challenge right now. If there is one country that needs peace and stability right now, it’s Pakistan,” the former cricket champion said in his victory speech after last month’s election.

Achieving that is not likely to be easy for the first-time Prime Minister and foreign affairs novice who on Saturday took the reins of a country that has been widely accused of stoking regional insecurity by backing extremists — claims Islamabad has repeatedly denied.

Ties with the U.S. cooled further in January when President Donald Trump accused Pakistan of “lies” and “duplicity” in the war on terror, suspending military assistance worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Anti-terror campaign:

Mr. Khan has repeatedly blamed Pakistan’s participation in the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign for the surge in terrorism on home soil over the last decade.

Now as Premier, in a tone noticeably softer than his earlier anti-U.S. comments, Mr. Khan has said he wants a “balanced relationship”, instead of “fighting America’s war” in exchange for aid.

Mr. Khan has long advocated a negotiated settlement with Islamist insurgents, a commitment that led to the criticism that he is soft on militants and earned him the nickname “Taliban Khan”.

If not in Washington, he may find a sympathetic ear in Kabul.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has also been pushing for talks with the Taliban, and offered a new, conditional ceasefire on Sunday.

“Imran Khan is very well positioned in building trust again with Afghanistan,” observed Huma Yusuf, an analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington. “He is seen as a fresh face with a credible voice.”

But given the current freeze with Washington, said Ms.Yusuf, Pakistan’s “drift from the U.S. camp to the China camp will continue”.

Beijing has long been Islamabad’s “all-weather friend”, and the strategic relationship was stepped up with the 2013 launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project that is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative.

The alliance is widely considered Pakistan’s most important, and Mr. Khan has vowed to strengthen it further.

But CPEC deals are opaque, and amid fears about Pakistan’s ability to repay Chinese loans, his party has vowed more transparency. That may be difficult in a country where any criticism that may hurt ties with Beijing is considered taboo.

It is arch-rival India which remains Pakistan’s biggest foreign policy challenge, however. The nuclear-armed rivals have fought three wars since the end of British rule in 1947, including two over Kashmir, the vast Himalayan territory that is claimed by both.

But reaching out to New Delhi is a path fraught with risk for civilian leaders in Pakistan, where foreign and defence policies are dominated by the powerful military.

Mr. Khan’s charged anti-India statements prompted many in both countries to predict that ties could suffer under his leadership.

But in an apparent about-turn after his poll victory, Mr. Khan has advocated peace as the only way forward.

In the end, observers say, the extent to which Khan can influence Pakistan’s foreign policy will depend on what the military deems acceptable.