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Why Pakistan's politicians play the anti-America card

Kaukab Shairani
April 14, 2022

Ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan is not the only Pakistani politician who has tapped into public resentment against the US. Blasting Washington is an evergreen strategy for Pakistan's leaders.

A man burns a US flag
Supporters of ousted PM Imran Khan burn a flag outside the US consulate in LahoreImage: K.M. Chaudary/AP/picture alliance

Before he was removed from office in a no-confidence vote earlier this week, Imran Khan had tried clinging to power by claiming a US-backed conspiracy was trying to topple his government.

The former prime minister's plan didn't work, but his anti-US rhetoric has proven to be a success at galvanizing his political base, many of whom took to the streets after his ouster in loud protests against "foreign interference."

After being voted out, the embattled Khan claimed that US President Joe Biden's administration was backing a consortium of Pakistan's opposition parties for "regime change" for not toeing Washington's line.

Khan has described newly elected Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif as a "US puppet."

Washington denies the allegations and opponents have dismissed Khan's rhetoric as political mudslinging. The new prime minister has promised to re-balance foreign policy ties with the US. 

Pakistan faces uncertain future

A history of Pakistani anti-Americanism

Anti-Americanism has long been a political tool for Pakistan's politicians.

Alliances between Pakistan and the US exist amid strong undercurrents of public opposition.

They developed during the Cold War and continued post-9/11 to boost international counterterrorism efforts. In the past decades, several Pakistani leaders have accused Washington of interference in domestic politics.

In the 1970s, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto alleged that a US plot was trying to force him out of office.

In 2007, at the height of the "war on terror," dictator Pervez Musharraf blamed the US for a security crisis in Pakistan's tribal regions.

The 2011 Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden further eroded trust. US officials vehemently accused Pakistan's military establishment of harboring Washington's most wanted terrorist.

Pakistan's religious parties have also portrayed the US as a threat to the Muslim world.

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that the main message is one of victimization, which transcends different political camps in Pakistan.

"The narrative that religious hard-liners use about the US is not all that dissimilar from what you hear from some of the populist politicians such as Imran Khan," he added.

Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, believes that Khan is "tapping into resentment that many Pakistanis feel with this relationship."

Another strand of public resentment in Pakistan extends to the country's political elite, often accused of corruption or incompetence.

Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington, told DW that anti-US rhetoric was often used to keep people focused on an external threat rather than domestic failures.

"Conspiracy theories prevail because they make the powerless feel that their powerlessness is not because of something that they're doing wrong. But because somebody is conspiring to make them powerless," he said.

He added that Imran Khan had perpetuated anti-US rhetoric at a time when Pakistan's economy is nosediving.

What is the US perspective?

Washington denies Khan's claims of foreign interference: A US State Department official told DW that the US "supports the peaceful upholding of constitutional and democratic principles," and does not "support one political party over another."

However, anti-Americanism in Pakistan could potentially turn relations icy.

Analyst Kugelman pointed out that a 2009 US bill aiming to increase civilian assistance to Pakistan had already been a source of tension.

"It became controversial and resulted in anti-America protests, which could have been fueled by the military establishment or other organs of the state," he said.

Though it was an attempt by Washington to prove that the US had a broad relationship with Pakistan, some Pakistanis had thought there were ulterior motives.

What is next for Pakistan's foreign policy?

Pakistan's new premier has said that he aims to work simultaneously with China and the US, and has even talked about improving ties with arch-rival India.

Geopolitical constraints must be factored in. With China fast becoming Pakistan's closest ally, while at the same time being a key competitor to the US, it is unclear how the US-Pakistan relationship will be affected.

But experts doubt that anti-Americanism in Pakistan will strain bilateral ties with Washington in the long run.

Pakistan also has close ties with Russia, and Khan visited Moscow the day the war in Ukraine began. Pakistan also abstained from voting on a UN resolution condemning Russia's invasion.

Amid conflicting interests, the pressing task for policymakers in Pakistan is to balance ties with Russia, China and the US.

Huma Baqai, an international relations expert, told DW that Pakistan's army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, had recently said that Pakistan's defense needs were not being met by the US.

"In fact, they've been scuttled, which is the primary reason Pakistan now has an obvious tilt towards Beijing," Baqai said.

But despite increasingly close ties with China, Pakistan's military,a powerful political force in the country, is being careful not to alienate the US. The Pentagon has also said that it expects to continue a healthy relationship with Pakistan's armed forces.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn