Because it centred on corruption, I couldn’t help thinking of the 1939 film Mr Smith Goes to Washington at the beginning of Imran Khan’s public presentation to a friendly audience at the US Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington on Tuesday of this week, a day after Khan had met with President Trump.
In the film, James Stewart plays Smith, a naïve young man who is appointed by accident to a Senate seat by a corrupt set of politicians in a small Western state who intend to use him for their corrupt purposes. Smith heroically overcomes the great odds against him and destroys the corrupt cabal (and in the process wins the heart of Jean Arthur). Khan began his presentation with a long autobiographical reminiscence of his decision to enter politics because he saw that as the only way to deal with the corruption that had, he said, engulfed the Pakistani state in those days. For years, he claimed, no one gave his tiny party any credence, and I can attest to that, being one of the sceptical when he would visit me in my office.
I was wrong; we sceptics were all wrong, I suppose—not about his passionate hatred of corruption, that was clear, but about his ability ever to make it the centrepiece of a winning political platform. Though it took 15 or so years to take hold, he persevered and broke through on a very skimpy platform that was centred on corruption. And he had a lot of material to draw on after the terms of Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. The film, of course, ends without giving any hint of future accomplishments by the hero, Smith, so we are left only wondering “what if.”
However Khan’s time is far from up; the questions of what he can do to turn around Pakistan’s economic nosedive, make his hatred of corruption into an effective policy that reforms the tax structure, widens considerably the tax net, and ultimately brings the Pakistani state into the 21st century remain unanswered. Each of his predecessors promised great changes; neither delivered much of anything except making it through an entire five-year term. If you listen to Khan, corruption is not only the main problem, it is the solution. He repeated again his oft-spoken desire to fund much of the deficit in revenue out of recaptured corruption monies held abroad. I had understood that the government had given up on this dream some time ago.
I guess the big news at this point, or at least the news that will get the media’s immediate attention, was President Trump’s offer (was it that strong?) to mediate the Kashmir dispute. This was made to the press pool that inevitably accompanies every visit of a foreign leader, events which Trump manages without fail to turn into something resembling a campaign speech. It took Khan by surprise. It should have, as it takes three for that particular tango. Trump claimed that India’s PM Modi suggested it to him at their last meeting, but that looks like Trump’s penchant for “alternative facts.” The Indian Foreign Ministry issued a statement denying that PM Modi has made such a suggestion.
In his presentation at USIP, Khan suggested that the most important factor holding back developing countries is corruption, because corrupt elites in these countries ruin the institutions to protect their privileged positions
The official White House summary of the meeting emphasised that “President Trump wants to build stronger economic and trade ties with Pakistan, which would benefit both of our countries, as we make progress on core United States security concerns.” There do not seem to be any references to mediation of Kashmir in the official statements so far. Even though all Washington (including the President, though he insists otherwise) is very wrapped up in the Wednesday Congressional testimony of Robert Mueller, I can’t imagine that if this were formal it would be overlooked.
In his presentation at USIP, Khan suggested that the most important factor holding back developing countries is corruption, because corrupt elites in these countries ruin the institutions to protect their privileged positions. He mentioned Pakistan’s particular need to have good relations with its neighbours, lamenting that India had turned it face away from working with a willing Pakistan to find a way forward in their relationship. At one point, later in the Q&A session, he reminisced about the negotiations President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee carried on around 2005, which came very close to an agreement on a process that could lead to settling the Kashmir problem.
Most questions focused on whether the visit has put US-Pakistani relations on a more stable path. The centre of the discussion was Afghanistan. Khan asserted that Pakistan has now abandoned the Strategic Depth concept and is prepared to help the US move forward in the peace process, which he indicated means that Pakistan will use its influence with the Taliban to promote a dialogue between the Taliban and the Ghani government as well as the dialogue between the Taliban and the US. The civilian government and the Pakistan Army is now, he said, on the same page on this issue.
In that respect, the White house summary noted that, “Pakistan has made efforts to facilitate the Afghanistan peace talks” but said that “we are going to ask them to do more” and added that “it is vital that Pakistan take action to shut down all [terrorist groups operating in Pakistan] once and for all.”
Khan mentioned that Pakistan intended to do this, but the modalities are absent from the statements, and one wonders if it is possible to do so in the short time span that is implied, and also if the army is also on board. Trump made positive general statements about Pakistan’s intentions to help in the Afghan peace process during the press pool event, but I found Khan’s statement somewhat more ambiguous, dwelling on the idea that there is no military solution and on Pakistan’s intention to “urge the Taliban to speak to the Afghan government and come to a settlement—a political solution.”
Obviously, there is lingering doubt that Pakistan has the clout with the Afghan Taliban to get it to the table with the government, or to look at the statement more critically, whether it is willing to expend the chips it has with the Taliban on this goal.
I found the major disappointment of his presentation, however, his response to a series of questions submitted by a bevy of people in the audience on the quantum leap in repression of free speech, on all facets of the media, newspapers, television, and social media. The blackout of the PTM came up in several questions I understand, although they were not read aloud. I would summarize his defence as basically a paranoid one, first saying the media is free and in the next breath blaming it for being out of control. The phrase he used the most was “the media needs a watch dog.” In fact, I think it has several watchdogs.
His words during the press pool are quite informative here. “Pakistan has one of the freest presses in the world. All you have to do is — since I’ve been the Prime Minister in the last 10 months — I mean, the criticism I have received from my own press: unprecedented. So to say that there are curbs on Pakistan press is a joke.” Perhaps the words “my own press” is the most instructive phrase in this sentence. Here we have another politician who believes that the role of the press is to build him up in the public eye, not to tell the truth. I have commented before in an article about Khan on the connection between populism and authoritarianism. There is an automatic connection between authoritarianism and suppression of freedom of speech. That we find Imran Khan in the company of other authoritarians in terms of a free media is not surprising.
It is a naturally authoritarian view. Of course, in this he has also a partner in paranoia—the army. It looks to me like the outlook for free speech in Pakistan is very poor, which could mean that the outlook for the reform the country needs is also poor.
The writer is an American diplomat, and is Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.