- Former cricketer Imran Khan, 59, could become Pakistan’s next PM
It should have been a trouble-free journey. Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricketer turned politician, was sitting on a plane at Toronto, ready to fly to New York. His purpose? Nothing more controversial than attending a fundraising lunch.
‘I thought we were about to take off, when two US immigration officials came through the door, on to the plane, and told me I had to get off,’ Khan says. ‘I was totally amazed this was happening.
‘They escorted me back to the terminal, then left me alone in a sparsely furnished room for an hour. Finally they started interrogating me.
The future Pakistan Prime Minister?: The former cricket star Imran Khan, pictured left bowling for Pakistan, in Sharjah, in 1991, has become a popular politician
Sports star: Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan at the crease during a One Day International against England in 1985
‘They didn’t seem to know what they were looking for, but finally it emerged they were worried about my opposition to American drone missile strikes on Pakistan. They seemed to think I was going to do something violent in America because we had planned to hold a protest – a crazy suggestion.
‘One of them kept saying, “Don’t worry, we won’t let the plane go without you.” Well, it did go without me and I missed the fundraising lunch.’
They held him for two hours at the US border post that lies on Canadian soil in Toronto. ‘Just imagine if that had happened to an American party leader in Pakistan, or indeed, anywhere else,’ he says.
‘There would have been uproar. But Americans seem to think they have a monopoly on dignity and respect.’
Khan, 59, has not spoken in detail until now about the incident, which occurred two weeks ago. He is reluctant to appear inflammatory. But his treatment serves to illustrate some significant – even dangerous – facts.
A man still remembered in Britain as a glamorous socialite, one of the most successful Test all-rounders in cricket history and a county stalwart for Sussex, Khan has a real chance of becoming Pakistan’s next prime minister, and a radical one at that.
Detained: Former Pakistan cricket captain turned politician Imran Khan says he taken off a flight from Canada to New York and interrogated by U.S. officials over his criticism of drone strikes
Fighter: Khan has been a vocal critic of U.S. drone strikes leading protest marches and vowing to order the Pakistani military to shoot the unmanned planes down if he wins in next year’s elections
Undaunted: After two hours of interrogatoin Khan said he would never changed his opposition to drone missiles
Victory for his political party, the Movement for Justice (in Urdu, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI) in elections due next spring would be a game-changing event: not only for Pakistan, but for neighbouring Afghanistan and the war still being fought there by Britain, America and our other Nato allies.
‘I get accused by liberals of being an extremist, and by the militants, an American stooge,’ he says. ‘It’s a very thin line. One slip of the tongue and you can be killed here. There’s that level of fanaticism.’
Several national leaders in Pakistan have been assassinated, most recently Benazir Bhutto in 2007.
Dangerous business: Imran Khan threatens the position of the feudal overlords in Pakistan
Seeking high office is a dangerous business, but it’s not a topic Khan likes to discuss. A friend says: ‘He has this Islamic sense of fatalism, though we have managed to persuade him to wear a bullet-proof vest occasionally.’
Last month, he led a convoy of vehicles 13 miles long to the border of tribal Waziristan in protest at the drones. Only later did he learn that serious and credible threats on his life had been picked up by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI.
No wonder. Khan is a direct threat not only to the Americans but also the feudal overlords who have controlled Pakistan for generations.
He has pledged to overturn military strategy in the region, ending the controversial US drone strikes but also operations by Pakistan’s army against the Taliban bases in the tribal border areas. He believes the war as it has been waged for the past 11 years is simply unwinnable, and that only a complete change of direction offers any hope of peace.
He also intends to mount by far the biggest anti-corruption campaign in Pakistani history, to deal with a political establishment that is, he says, ‘rotten’.
War and corruption, he believes, are irredeemably linked: ‘We have the lowest tax to GDP ratio in the world – 61 per cent of our national MPs pay no tax at all. Keeping Pakistan as a frontline state and prolonging the war allows the elite to rake in the foreign aid [much of which comes from Britain and the US].’
We’re sitting on the terrace outside his office, an outbuilding at his sprawling estate, Bani Gala, on a forested hill above the Pakistani capital. Khan’s dark mane and striking features have barely changed since he was a Test star. But his cricketing days are long gone, as is his former busy social life frequenting the nightclubs of Chelsea and Belgravia.
He has written of his deep commitment to the mystical, Sufi variant of Islam. Since his divorce in 2004 from Jemima Khan, the daughter of millionaire James Goldsmith, after nine years of marriage, his life has been devoid of gossip or scandal.
Separated: Imran Khan divorced from his wife Jemima in 2004 after ten years of marriage
Socialite: Imran Khan, pictured holding his newborn son Sulaiman in 1997, used to be a frequent visitor to nightclubs in Chelsea
Jemima spends most of her time with their sons in England. She and Khan remain close but for him it seems it was a question of returning to his roots.
‘Even while I was travelling the world, my home was always in Pakistan, and I grew up with a tremendous pride in the country,’ he says. ‘My parents [his father was a wealthy civil engineer] drummed it into me.They used to tell me, I never knew what it was like to grow up as a slave, as a subject of the British Empire.’
For the past year, attendances of more than 100,000 at his political rallies have been routine, and millions have joined the PTI via Facebook and Twitter: the party rolls now stand at ten million, Khan says. In prospect, he says, is the Pakistani version of the Arab Spring.
Stylish: Celebrity couple Jemima Khan and Imran Khan, pictured in London in 1996
‘A corrupt status quo has been ruling the Muslim world, but now the majority want democratic rights. We have women who were educated in English-medium [speaking] schools, and we have boys who have been to the madrassas [religious schools]. Our support comes from across the class divide, and that’s why it’s so exciting.’
In the political salons of Islamabad, opinions differ as to how successful Khan is likely to be. But there is agreement that this time the PTI has a real chance of power, and that even if it doesn’t secure a majority, it will win a significant block of seats.
No one doubts, either, that Pakistan needs a new path. Reeling from unemployment, inflation and infant mortality all at worryingly high levels, it is also beset by terrorism, the product of both home-grown extremism and the Afghan war.
The country’s politics have descended into farce, with one prime minister disqualified from holding office earlier this year and another currently facing the same fate.
‘For the past three decades, I have watched the country degenerate,’ Khan says. ‘Someone as privileged as me has a choice. I can try to do something, or I could do nothing, and in that case, I cannot complain.
If the US officials who dragged Khan off his plane thought they could persuade him to change his mind about drones, they were mistaken. In his view, the strikes, which have so far killed up to 3,500 people, are directly responsible for intensifying the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
America claims that they are essential, because the Afghan branch of the Taliban uses bases in Pakistan’s tribal areas, such as North and South Waziristan. But according to a report by US experts last month, to date they have ‘taken out’ only 41 ‘high-value’ terrorist targets, and have slaughtered hundreds of civilians, including many children. Khan says this suffering has a political cost: ‘It allows the militants to claim that they are fighting a true jihad, a holy war, and that to join it is a sacred duty.’
He says that without the drones and the series of Pakistani military operations in the same tribal areas that have taken place at America’s behest since 2004, it would be possible to isolate the true fanatics from the ‘maliks’, the traditional tribal leaders. Instead, American and Pakistani policy has played into their hands.
He was brought up in comfortable surroundings in Lahore, but his family’s origins lie in the Pashtun (Pathan) belt along the Afghan border. Khan’s grasp of the Pashtun doctrine of ‘badal’ (revenge) comes from his genes: ‘Even in my family, I remember vendettas going back 50 years.’
Time to end the conflict: Imran Khan, pictured addressing a peace rally, has called for a negotiated settlement
Obstacles: Khan also faces severe problems of corruption in Pakistan
America not only wants the drone strikes to continue: it is urging Pakistan to launch a new army operation in North Waziristan, claiming that the Haqqani network – one of the deadliest pro-Taliban forces operating in Afghanistan – is based there.
Yet the legacy of previous such operations has been bloody, says Khan: an onslaught by the Pakistani branch of the Taliban in the country’s major cities has been woefully under-reported in the world’s press. About 40,000 people have been killed since 2004.
Khan’s critics say that his notion of a negotiated settlement is, at best, naive. But he insists it is the only hope – not only for Pakistan, but for the hapless British soldiers fighting in Helmand: ‘If you stop the drones, withdraw the army and engage the tribes, they are the ones who will, in time, win the war.
‘We have more extremism than at any time in our history. Pakistan is descending into a frenzy of fanaticism. It has to stop’
‘Our elite, these so-called liberals, they are the only liberals in the world who are pro-war, and their philosophy is George W. Bush’s.’ Most days of the week, Pakistan’s excellent English newspapers carry vehement attacks on ‘Taliban Khan’ for expressing such views. It’s a charge he vehemently denies.
‘Never have I once given a statement in support of the Taliban. Never once have I failed to condemn an attack on civilians. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do – pick up a gun and charge against them?
‘The policy we have now has got us to the point where 140,000 soldiers are stuck in these so-called anti-terrorism operations, and we have more extremism than at any time in our history. The country is descending into a frenzy of fanaticism. It has to stop.’
Khan faces obstacles more intractable than the liberals. Corruption in Pakistan is a complex, organised business, and it permeates elections and the process of governing. In some parts, notably the rural areas of the southern province of Sind, society remains organised on the quasi-feudal lines sponsored by the British Raj, with the big landlords wielding huge influence.
There is also the shadow cast by the politics of ‘thana kacheri’ – the phrase means ‘police station and civil court’. Frequently, justice is possible only with the support of a politically influential person. In these close-knit communities, people know who you voted for.
Positive thinking: Khan believes his party will win a landslide in the spring elections
‘In the villages, you cannot imagine what the police station is. It’s a centre of oppression, and the people need protectors. If a clean politician is strong, they will go for him. But if the criminal is strong and the clean politician is weak, they will go for the criminal.’
He cites the example of the Indian state of Bihar, whose population, at 100 million, is a little more than half that of Pakistan. Until 2005, it was a byword for gangsterism, its state government controlled by mafia chiefs. That year, a reforming chief minister, Nitish Kumar, took office, and has since achieved extraordinary results.
Changes to the law to make it actually function have seen the imprisonment of 44,000 corrupt officials, and an economic growth rate of 11 per cent, the highest in India.
‘Bihar had all the problems Pakistan has today. This guy’s completely changed it. If your top leadership is clean, you can achieve remarkable things.’
Perhaps Khan’s bubble will burst, given the challenges of Pakistan. What’s not in doubt is his willingness to make enemies.
‘Never has the situation of the ordinary Pakistani been as bad as it is today, and that’s why I think we are going to win a landslide.
‘You know, I played in five world cups, and I never predicted we would win until the last one, against England in 1992. We were 50-1 outsiders. My friends were cancelling their tickets to come to Australia, but I said no, don’t, we’re going to win it.
‘They all made fun of me, and a lot of people still regret that they didn’t take my advice. They could have put money on us when we were.50-1.
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