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Why the US is not weighing in on Imran Khan's 3 year prison term

The former Pakistani prime minister's latest arrest comes amid a political purge of his party.

Analysis | Middle East

After an IMF deal came through in July, Pakistan's political crisis appeared to temporarily simmer down, but the latest arrest and three-year prison sentence given to former prime minister Imran Khan could push it back into the spotlight. 

Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party seems to have been fully dismantled, as its charismatic leader has not only been withdrawn from public visibility but also prohibited from participating in politics. Yet, in Pakistan’s political landscape, down and out leaders, even those incarcerated, have demonstrated a surprising degree of resilience and comeback potential. The only constant factor is the inherent unpredictability of the country’s politics itself.

This arrest and related criminal charges are purportedly linked to corruption and fraud. But there is a widespread belief among many Pakistanis, including many of Imran Khan's critics, that his arrests are more of  a result of his challenge to the military establishment. Most analysts outside of Pakistan appear to agree that the systematic dismantling of PTI — achieved by arresting its key leaders who later quit the party and politics altogether, and the prosecution of party workers and supporters in anti-terrorism courts, runs counter to democratic principles and has effectively disenfranchised a significant segment of Pakistan's electorate. 

However, the response from Washington could best be described as muted.

The State Department issued a series of tepid statements expressing hope for Pakistan to be “consistent” with the rule of law and its constitution. In response to Khan’s latest arrest, a State Department spokesperson referred to it as an “internal matter” of Pakistan. Some members of Congress have expressed concern over the situation and sent a letter of concern to Secretary of State Antony Blinken when the crisis was at its height in May. However, neither sporadic concern from U.S. lawmakers nor advocacy from Pakistani American supporters of PTI is likely to alter Washington’s position on the matter.

Why has the Biden admin not responded more forcefully? For one, Washington might genuinely recognize, after two decades of the war in Afghanistan casting a long shadow over U.S.-Pakistan relations, that no amount of statements or threats from Washington will significantly alter the calculations of Pakistan's security establishment. 

The Biden administration is likely hesitant to jeopardize its relationship with the Pakistani state over the fate of one political party led by a man they may well view as unpredictable. It is also unlikely that a strong U.S. statement would actually benefit PTI figures or advance civil liberties. 

It's worth remembering that after Imran Khan was removed as prime minister through a vote of no confidence in April 2022, he turned a U.S. regime change conspiracy into his central campaign slogan. Nearly a year earlier, during a June 2021 interview with Axios on HBO, then Prime Minister Imran Khan was asked if Pakistan would hypothetically allow the CIA to use its soil, to which he emphatically responded, “absolutely not.” 

This response also became a campaign slogan featured on the placards and cars of his supporters. Receiving a robust show of support from Washington — even if it is based on democratic norms — can prove quite detrimental to any political party in Pakistan given widespread feelings of resentment and suspicion toward the United States, and it can also create difficulties for civil liberties activists who are frequently accused of foreign influence.

Washington’s reluctance to comment definitively on Pakistan’s ongoing political crisis is likely the result of all of the aforementioned factors. Attempting to influence domestic politics or democratic norms abroad is fraught and history shows that attempts often backfire, leading to unintended consequences.

Furthermore, Washington applies such standards inconsistently. In the case of Pakistan, it appears that Washington has finally internalized that it cannot alter the calculations of other countries very well when it comes to internal matters.

 If only, it could manage to learn that same lesson elsewhere. 

Lawyers gather to protest following the arrest of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan, outside his residence in Lahore, Pakistan August 5, 2023. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza
Analysis | Middle East
Chris Murphy Ben Cardin

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