Imran Khan has been accused of bowing to religious extremists in Pakistan. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi
Imran Khan could well return to power in Pakistan, and the US must be prepared to deal with him. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

When news broke this week of the death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul in a US drone strike, speculation soon began in neighboring Pakistan over whether the drone that killed him took off from bases there or passed through the country’s airspace.

US-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation has been controversial since the early days of the “war on terror,” triggering a backlash from Islamist politicians, Pashtun tribesmen, and formerly pro-state jihadist militants. It even fomented violent dissent from within the armed forces

The US remains unpopular in Pakistan. Sentiment toward the US is a long way away from the days when prominent American visitors would be greeted enthusiastically by Pakistani crowds.

And though the US-Pakistan bilateral relationship – including counterterrorism cooperation – is significantly reduced in scope, it has become entangled with Pakistan’s domestic politics in ways unlike before, potentially becoming a major electoral factor in Pakistan’s main urban centers.

When prime minister Imran Khan was deposed through a vote of no confidence in April, he alleged that he had been brought down through a US “regime change” conspiracy, which he claimed was motivated by his firm opposition to allowing the Americans to operate military bases in the country.

Many in Pakistan see recent events – including the army chief’s unusual call with a top US diplomat last week purportedly to secure quicker approval of the release of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan tranche – as evidence of collusion with the US in ousting Khan as part of a quid pro quo. An anti-Khan talk-show host even speculated that Pakistan allowed a “one-time” strike in exchange for help form the IMF.

Pakistan’s struggling economy could surely use all the help it can get. Official figures put the inflation rate at around 25%. The rupee has been in a free fall, losing around 24% in value to the US dollar since Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif took power this April. And net foreign-exchange reserves held by Pakistan’s central bank have fallen to US$8.39 billion, covering less than two months of imports.

The deteriorating economy has substantially eroded public support for Sharif’s shaky coalition government.

For those keen on linking Pakistan’s economic and political turmoil to exogenous forces, there are plenty of dots to connect. Khan’s political troubles intensified in the early months of this year, just as the US said it had discovered Zawahiri was in Afghanistan. And this summer, as the IMF adopted a tough posture in talks with Islamabad, the US intelligence community claimed it had conclusively identified Zawahiri’s location in Kabul.

What may simply be coincidental is proof for some of the US orchestrating Imran Khan’s removal and using various levers of influence to ensure it has the unimpeded ability to strike high-value targets in landlocked Afghanistan using Pakistan’s airspace.

The widely held belief that Khan was the victim of a US conspiracy feeds into his popular support, increases the likelihood that he could return to power, and complicates America’s counterterrorism strategy in the region.

It’s very likely that the Zawahiri strike – and surveillance before and after the attack – involved the use of Pakistani airspace. Indeed, a US congressman has said that Pakistan has given “tacit approval” of overflight rights.

Now, if US drones did in fact travel through Pakistan, possibly from a base in the Persian Gulf region, and not a Central Asian neighbor of Afghanistan, then the killing of Zawahiri not only proves the effectiveness of the US “over-the-horizon”  counterterrorism strategy, but also its reliance on Pakistani airspace.

If the US is indeed dependent on Pakistan to surveil and strike targets in Afghanistan, its counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan is potentially jeopardized by the return of Imran Khan to power through elections within the next year. It’s vital that the US and Pakistan develop a counterterrorism cooperation framework that can withstand political pressures in Pakistan in the short term.

Toward this, the US should maintain a restrained, focused counterterrorism strategy, quietly partnering with Pakistan without having bases in the country (if it hasn’t already). Drone strikes, like former US president Bill Clinton used to say of abortion, should be “safe, legal, and rare.”

The two countries should also ramp up intelligence-sharing on shared threats, including al-Qaeda and the local branch of Islamic State (ISIS).

But Washington must also prepare for the potential return of Imran Khan to power. It should resist the urge to demonize him as a kind of Hugo Chavez–style populist strongman and pariah. And it must avoid supporting – wittingly or otherwise – anti-democratic moves to keep him out of power. Doing so would put the US at loggerheads with the Pakistani street.

Pakistan may be poor, and its economy in crisis. But it is no tiny country. The US simply cannot get locked into a battle with a populist leader in the world’s fifth-most-populous country.

Both sides should seek a credible off-ramp should Khan return to office. But in the end, he may not allow even very limited US drone overflight rights. And that is a reality the US must be prepared to accept.

It would be Khan’s prerogative as the leader of a sovereign country.

Arif Rafiq

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting LLC, a political risk advisory company focused on the Middle East and South Asia, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. Follow him on Twitter @arifcrafiq.