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How Pakistan's political standoff will affect U.S. interests in the region

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

There's a big political standoff in Pakistan. The country's prime minister dissolved Parliament and called for a new election just as a vote of no confidence was set to take place. So how does this affect U.S. interests in the region? NPR's Diaa Hadid joins us from Islamabad. Diaa, so the way it goes, it's like Parliament, you don't like what they have to say about you, then you fire them. I mean, is that basically what happened?

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Well, that's what critics are complaining about, and right now the Supreme Court is hearing arguments about this. Basically, they're trying to decide on the legality of this move that happened on Saturday, when the president dissolved Parliament just as a vote was about to take place that likely would have thrown the prime minister, Imran Khan, out of power. And the Supreme Court will try to decide this fairly quickly because right now Pakistan is in a political limbo, and the risk is this could spill out on the streets if it's not resolved in the courts, although it's not even clear if politicians will accept a decision that's not in their favor. So now already in Pakistan, in Islamabad, security forces are on high alert. They've rolled out the shipping containers. It's always a sign of potential trouble because they're used to block protesters from marching on Parliament and the courts.

MARTINEZ: Now, before we get into why this is important, can you explain a bit of the background of this vote?

HADID: Right. So the prime minister, Imran Khan, who was elected four years ago, he's got a fairly big and loyal support base, but his rule has always been tainted by these allegations that the military helped propel him to power. That's Pakistan's most powerful institution, and it does deny involvement. But over the years, Khan was seen as mismanaging the economy and foreign policy. He quite famously celebrated the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. He visited President Vladimir Putin as Russian tanks were rolling into Ukraine. And analysts say the military began stepping away from supporting him, and that signaled to the opposition that they could try and wrest power. So they went ahead, and they filed this no-confidence motion.

And at that time, Khan and his allies began claiming there was this American conspiracy to remove him from power. Now, Washington denies this, and Khan insists in local media outlets that this was made clear at a March 7 between the Pakistani ambassador and a senior State Department official. So it's in that context that Imran Khan asked for Parliament to be dissolved yesterday, and he and his allies argue that the effort to oust him is illegitimate because it's part of a foreign conspiracy.

MARTINEZ: So just to recap, he celebrated the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. He visited with Putin. And then he claims an American conspiracy. So it sounds like this is going to impact their relationship with the United States.

HADID: Right. And these relationships - and the relationship with the United States isn't very good anyway. And there is concern among Pakistani officials about how bad it could get. Already, the Pakistani chief of army staff has said in a recent speech that he wants Pakistan to have good relations with the United States. That was a nudge, a sort of criticism of what Khan is doing. But Khan and his allies are digging in on this American conspiracy theory. And in a country where this American - anti-American sentiment is pervasive, especially among the religious right wing, this could escalate pretty quickly.

MARTINEZ: And what about for Pakistan itself? What's the risk of this crisis lingering?

HADID: Right. The risk is that already food and inflation - food prices and inflation is high because of the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. If this crisis lingers and people get hungrier, political instability is even more likely.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Diaa Hadid. Thanks a lot.

HADID: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.