Imran Khan’s Double Game

    Imran Khan’s Double Game

    Thirty years ago, Imran Khan led the Pakistani national team to victory at the Cricket World Cup, cementing his place as one of the greatest athletes in the history of the sport, and as a hero in his country. He retired at the age of thirty-nine. Four years later, in 1996, he founded a political party called Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (P.T.I.), and he began speaking out more on political and cultural issues. In 2013, his party started winning significant power, thanks largely to Khan’s popularity. Then, in 2018, in an election marred by polling irregularities, and with the support of Pakistan’s military, which wields de-facto control of the country, Khan was elected—or “selected,” as his opponents say—Prime Minister.

    It was the culmination of a remarkable rise, but one fraught with irony: Khan had been an outspoken opponent of the American war on terror, and Pakistan’s two-faced role in fighting it, while at the same time accepting the help of Pakistan’s military, America’s partner in that war. (Pakistan’s military also helped bring the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, in the nineteen-nineties, and has nurtured it to varying degrees ever since.) Khan leads a party that is increasingly socially conservative, but he is famous internationally for what some have called his “playboy life style”: multiple marriages, claims of children out of wedlock. (The term “playboy life style” itself has a euphemistic feel, given Khan’s long history of misogynistic remarks, such as blaming sexual assault on what women wear.) Khan has also consistently made broadly sympathetic comments about the Taliban. (In 2012, for a Profile in The New Yorker, Khan told Steve Coll, “I never thought the Taliban was a threat to Pakistan”; by that time, various factions of the Taliban and their allies had murdered more than forty-thousand Pakistanis.)

    Khan’s premiership was marked by instability. During his first year in office, the Pakistani economy crashed, and attacks on journalists and civil-society organizations increased. By the end of 2021, he had fallen out with the military, which was threatened by his refusal to empower its favored leaders and by his independent power base. Last year, a coalition of parties—spearheaded by the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (P.M.L.-N.) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (P.P.P.), which are run by Pakistan’s two great political dynasties, the Sharifs and the Bhuttos, respectively—banded together to hold a no-confidence vote, which removed Khan from office. Khan began publicly criticizing the military and held angry, demagogic rallies during which he vowed to return to power. In November, someone shot Khan in the leg. He blamed his political opponents, including the military—without evidence—and has pushed for new elections, which are scheduled to occur this fall. It remains unclear whether Khan’s latest anti-military stance—astonishing in its directness—reflects a new understanding of the unhealthy role the institution has played in Pakistan’s politics, or whether Khan is merely angry that the Army stopped tilting the scales in his favor.

    Khan and I recently spoke by Zoom. (Last week, after our conversation, a bombing in Peshawar killed scores of Pakistanis; the Pakistani Taliban—an offshoot of the Afghan Taliban—which has caused much of the violence and destruction in Pakistan during the past fifteen years, officially denied responsibility, although some of its members claimed credit for the attack.) During the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what’s behind his criticisms of the Pakistani military, why he has remained silent on the treatment of Muslims in China, the reasons he thinks Pakistan should work with the Taliban, and why he is more “evolved” than other people.

    How has your vision for Pakistan changed since you entered politics in the mid-nineteen-nineties?

    I came into politics because, from the age of eighteen, I had gone to university in England. I’d played professional cricket in England in the summers. I could compare and contrast life in Pakistan with life in England. And what struck me most were two things. One was the welfare state. Second, and most important, was the rule of law, because in Pakistan we had martial law and military rule, which means that the military is above the constitution and above the law. Half the time, we had these two crooked families—mafia families—running Pakistan.

    This is a problem with the entire developing world: we do not have the ability to catch white-collar criminals because those in power weaken state institutions. Corruption is a symptom of there not being rule of law. So I wanted Pakistan to have rule of law.

    I know that the civilian leaders feud among themselves, as you’re feuding now with the Sharifs and the Bhuttos, the families who run the two biggest parties in government. But hasn’t the military always held the real power in Pakistan? And isn’t the fundamental prerequisite for a functioning democratic society to insure civilian supremacy?

    Look, we got off to a bad start. Pakistan’s neighbor, six or seven times in size, is India. The state grew up with fear, much like in Israel, where there was this feeling that we have hostile neighbors much bigger than us, and therefore we need to protect ourselves. The reliance on security became paramount because there was fear that our existence was threatened. That’s how the military came to prominence in this country. And when the military took over for the first time it was actually with public approval. But, subsequently, what has happened is that, when the military takes over, it breaks the law of the land, and it violates the constitution. Even the democratic governments treated themselves as being above the law. Had I not gone to England, I would not have understood what people meant by rule of law.

    There has to be a balance between a strong military establishment and a democratic government. You cannot have a system where the elected government has the responsibility, but the power lies with the military. It’s too idealistic to expect that we would suddenly become some Western democracy where there’s absolute civilian supremacy. But we do hope to have some sort of a balance between the military and the civilians in this country. A huge, immediate change is not possible, because our security apparatus has gotten very entrenched over the years.

    When you were Prime Minister, how much did you feel that you were actually in charge? And how much did you feel that the military was in charge? You say that you want balance, but it seems difficult to manage in practice.

    During my three and a half years in power, I would say that, for three of those years, the military and my government were on the same page. We had a very good working relationship. Whatever my policies were, they backed the policies. The military establishment, you must remember, is one man. The Army chief is all-powerful. So the only problem I had with him was, again, rule of law.

    When I came into power in 2018, the National Accountability Bureau had made corruption charges against [the P.M.L.-N. and the P.P.P.]. I wanted the cases to move forward. But the N.A.B. was actually controlled by this one man, the Army chief, who would not proceed with accountability for these powerful politicians. I discovered that my whole theme—rule of law, bringing the powerful under the law—failed because the Army chief just did not consider corruption to be bad.[[During Khan’s tenure, Pakistan dipped in Transparency International’s anti-corruption index; money laundering continued unabated.]And the worst thing that happened was that he engineered the downfall of my government and actually brought the two families on again to rule us.

    There are accusations that the Army meddled to help you in the 2018 election, which observers have called “tainted.” When I asked what you thought about working with the Army, you started talking about how, essentially, they didn’t go after your political opponents. Your commitment in these past few months to civilians taking greater power—does that reflect some sort of authentic feeling about what’s best for Pakistan, or is it more about you wanting political success?

    Today, the Army is the only organized institution in our country. It is the only institution that has not been tampered with or weakened. The civilian governments have not allowed other institutions to grow stronger, because then they would not be able to siphon money out of the country. So my whole campaign was about these two families.

    In 2018, when we were challenged about the election, I offered in my first speech to open the election. We actually don’t think that the election was rigged. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have offered to open it.

    Wouldn’t it be more powerful to say, about the Army, “Yeah, they put their thumb on the scale for me in 2018. They’ve put their thumb on the scale in different ways during our history. All of that needs to go out the window.”

    Look, Isaac, the only people who said that the Army helped me in 2018 were the opposition. Since we’ve been out of power, there have been thirty-five by-elections in Pakistan. And, despite the Army, the establishment standing with the opposition, we have won seventy-five per cent of all by-elections. We are asking for [a general] election, but Pakistan refuses to hold one.

    I don’t think anyone’s saying that you don’t have legitimate popularity in Pakistan right now. It’s more about the way that you worked with the Army in the past. You came in as a critic of the Musharraf dictatorship.[[Pervez Musharraf ruled Pakistan from 1999 to 2008.]After you were in power, at least half of your initial cabinet had served Musharraf.

    Now, again, I’ll sort of make you understand. Right now in Pakistan, there is only one institution that is intact and that gets things done. That’s the Army. And then we have unfortunately had these two crooked families who have weakened the institutions.

    If you want things done in Pakistan, it is a joint exercise between the civilian government and the apparatus of the military. We had floods, and the Army had the organization. Polio, dealing with polio on the borders, we had problems with militancy there. Without the Army, we couldn’t have done it. So let me just be precise: the power must lie with the civilian government, which has the public mandate to run the country. But the Army will always play a big part.

    Critics say that, during your premiership, you essentially worked hand in hand with the Army. Press freedom declined, and there were attacks on journalists. Using the Army to enforce the law domestically often leads to lots of trouble.

    My three and a half years are considered the most liberal in Pakistan’s history in terms of journalists, in terms of freedom of media and press. My three and a half years were exemplary.

    Independent organizations have catalogued something else.

    Hold on. Compare that with what has happened in the eight months since I’ve been out of power. There have been journalists who’ve been beaten up. One of our best investigative journalists, who was hounded out of the country, was killed in Kenya—assassinated. There have been social-media activists beaten up. This has never happened!

    This has happened throughout Pakistan’s history though, right? Including through your term. This isn’t new for Pakistan’s activists and journalists—

    No. Isaac, in our three and a half years this sort of thing never happened. There were only two incidents of journalists who were picked up, and immediately we had them freed. Any objective observer would say that, in three and a half years, we never tortured anyone.[[For decades, journalists and civil-society activists have been regularly arrested or killed in Pakistan. During Khan’s tenure, press freedom declined measurably. Torture is commonly used by Pakistan’s military and police forces.]

    You have been very critical of the American war on terror and American policy in the region. But the Pakistani military supported your rise to power while it was receiving aid from America, working with America, even if they were not always aligned. Is that something that you’ve ever thought about?

    Firstly, Isaac, the military did not bring me to power. My movement was one of the most powerful public movements in Pakistan’s history. It started in 2013. Ours is the first Party that was not produced by the military. I just wanted to be clear on that, because it is propaganda against us to say that somehow the military brought me to power in 2018. It’s not true.

    It feels like we’ve hit a roadblock here. I was hoping that you would want to reflect on this, but let me ask something a little different. In your first answer, you said something interesting about being in England and—

    Sorry. Isaac, you wanted me to answer the questions about the U.S. war on terror. I opposed us joining the U.S. war on terror after 9/11 for one reason. In the eighties, Pakistan and the U.S. worked together with the jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We had trained the mujahideen to fight foreign occupation, and they were considered heroes. Along the border with Afghanistan, we had the Pashtun belt, the tribal belt from which the Afghan jihad was launched. After 9/11, I kept saying that we should stay neutral on this, because, after saying that fighting the Soviets is jihad and religious duty, you can’t say, now that the U.S. was there, that resistance is terrorism. It will backfire. And that’s what happened. Also, groups such as Al Qaeda turned against the state of Pakistan. I was always right in saying that we should have stayed neutral. It wasn’t anti-American. This is the problem. Anyone who does not agree with what America thinks, or with its foreign policy, is turned into an “anti-American.” I was simply for the Pakistani interest.

    But Pakistan was not neutral, right? In the mid-nineties, in Afghanistan, the Pakistani security state helped put the Taliban in power and gave aid to various factions of the Taliban during the past twenty-five years. I can understand what you’re saying given what happened when various Taliban factions turned against Pakistan, but Pakistan was not a neutral player here.

    Isaac, we could do a separate interview simply on the subject because, look, I’m considered an expert. Why am I considered an expert?

    I was about to ask that.

    My Party is in power in the northwest province, now called K.P. Province. That is a province with Pashtuns. Remember, the Taliban were Pashtuns, and the fighting against the Soviets was mainly led by the Pashtuns. So I know the whole situation. But, look, in the nineties, when the Taliban came to power, it was not because the Pakistani government helped them. The Pakistani government at that time was backing the mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was controlling Kabul. And, actually, it was a mistake. We should have stayed neutral then. But the Taliban broke through. They took over Kabul, then took over most of Afghanistan. That’s when Pakistan changed horses and realized that the Taliban were going to take over. That’s when we supported them.[[Pakistan supplied and funded the Taliban for more than a year before its fighters captured Kabul in 1996.]

    Should the current Taliban government be an ally of Pakistan? And do you think that the Taliban government is a legitimate representative of the Afghan people?

    Well, firstly, anyone who understands the Afghan frame of mind would know that there is no such thing as taking Afghanistan for granted by anyone. They’re the most independent-minded people. They refuse to accept any outside interference.

    I feel very strongly that Afghanistan should not be isolated. After forty years, the government has got some peace in Afghanistan. It’s not Taliban; it’s the government of Afghanistan.

    It’s not Taliban?

    It’s the government of Afghanistan. I mean, they’re not forty million Talibs running the country. You have to think about forty million people in Afghanistan. And for us the most important thing is that there’s peace after forty years. If you engage them, and make them mainstream, there’s a much better chance of pushing them to support human rights and women’s education.

    You have said that not that educating girls is part of Afghan culture. Is that accurate?

    Absolutely not. I never said that.

    Remember, there are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. It’s the same Pashtun culture. We actually incentivize girls’ education. We pay stipends to the parents of the girl child to send them to school. Sixty to seventy per cent of all schools, new schools, that we build in Pakistan are for girls. All I said was that the rural culture of Afghanistan is totally different from the urban culture. Same as in Pakistan’s Pashtun areas. They’re very conservative. That’s all I said. As far as education goes, I mean—

    “If we are not sensitive to cultural norms of these people, even with stipends, people in Afghanistan won’t send their girls to school.”

    Yeah. That’s all I said. In Pakistan, the Pashtun parents in rural areas are very keen for their girl children to be educated, and we have no problem. But, if they feel that somehow the education would compromise the girls’ security or the cultural norms, then they won’t send the girls to the schools. So, when we build schools, we are very careful that these cultural norms are not violated.

    You also said that when the Taliban took Kabul in 2021 it was “breaking the chains of slavery.”


    You’re laughing.

    You have to understand this. My statement was deliberately taken out of context.

    I see.

    Firstly, the speech was in Urdu. When they translated it into English, it sounded very jarring at a time when people in the U.S. were very sensitive. All I was saying was that we had just made a revolutionary change in our system of education in Pakistan. We inherited this colonial system where the tiny élite in Pakistan would be taught in the English medium, and the rest would be taught in Urdu. So, we synthesized the education system. I said, “Look, mental slavery is far, far worse than physical slavery.” I was just telling people that Afghanistan has freed itself, but that is not as bad—it’s nothing compared with mental slavery, which is what we are suffering from. That one line went viral all over the world, and the context was completely different.

    At the beginning of the interview, you said that, after going to the U.K. and perceiving that they had the rule of law there, you thought, Why shouldn’t we have this in Pakistan? But does that apply to social issues? You’ve said that, if a woman wears very few clothes, it will “have an impact on the man unless they’re robots.” And, “We don’t have discothèques, we don’t have night clubs, so it’s a different way of life here.” You were talking about the causes of sexual assault and rape. There seems to be a certain universalism in your thinking about democratic government, but, when I hear you speak about cultural or social issues, about girls’ education or how women respond to being mistreated by men, there’s not so much universalism. It’s more that different cultures do things differently. What are your thoughts on that?

    Isaac, again, I’m appalled. I just feel that sometimes the Western press picks up selective things. How can anyone blame women for rape? Tell me, how can any sensible person ever make such a stupid comment? Look, the rapist is always to be blamed. Always. Simple. Full stop. I was looking at the crime charts, and the crime charts reported to me by the police officers showed that sex crimes were going through the roof in my country. So we got to the bottom of it. Why is this happening?

    In the case of a woman getting raped, she’s marked for life. But even worse is when children get abused; that stays with them for the rest of their life. The ideas that came forward were, one, that we must bring down the level of temptation in our society, because you have a lot of frustrated people. Now, this is coming from civil society. And secondly, how do we educate children in schools to stop this child abuse?

    How would one bring down temptation? What would that mean in practice?

    Well, the temptation is not women walking the streets with less clothes. Temptation is social media. On our mobile phones children now have access to information. But, at the same time, the level of the pornographic stuff on a mobile phone, which is available to children of seven and eight years old—never in human history have children been exposed to that.

    Was it taken out of context that you said, about the journalist Gharida Farooqi, who was harassed at a P.T.I. event: what does she expect if she, a journalist, forces her way or goes into male spaces?

    No. No. No. It wasn’t out of context. Look, in our society, we were . . . it was just in one particular rally where they were all men, and she was right in the middle of this male crowd. It’s just that . . . I mean, anyone who knows Pakistani society, or most sorts of societies like India or Pakistan—if you put yourself in that position, you are going to be vulnerable. It’s just common sense. Yes, the men are to be blamed if they do anything. But also it works two ways, you should all . . . in our society, normally, people would avoid putting themselves in that position. It’s as simple as that.

    How would that apply to a woman who’s a journalist who’s trying to cover a story? I’m a little confused here. It seems that this is in contradiction with your last statement.


    Go on.

    Isaac, we have brilliant women journalists in this country. They are doing a great job. But they don’t have to put themselves in positions—and let me just say, it was a specific situation I was talking about, because we actually tried to get her out of the situation.

    My earlier comment was that you were expressing a universality about basic political rights, but less so about social spaces, how women are treated, whether girls are educated. Do you think that’s wrong?

    Look, Isaac, if you think that the norms in the United States, or in Western democracies, or Western European countries, should be the same in our country, in Pakistan, in India, or in Muslim countries—the norms are completely different here. Sometimes the problem with Western journalism is that they go into our countries and expect that it should be exactly what it is like in your country. It’s not like that. Let me just make you understand something. In Pakistan, by far the bulk of the marriages are arranged. And arranged marriages are between families. So it’s not a question in this country of going to a night club or discos or whatever and girl meets boy. The families put the marriages together. And also the reputation of families matters here. So, when the families are looking to propose, they always look at the reputation of the family and the girl or the boy.

    Malala Yousafzai responded to your comments about girls’ education. She said, “I nearly lost my life fighting against Taliban’s ban on girls’ education. Thousands of Pashtoon activists and notables lost their lives when they raised their voices against Taliban’s horrors and millions became refugees. We represent Pashtoons—not the Taliban.” I think what she was saying was that many Pashtun people are for girls’ education, and they’re fighting for it. And, so, to say that a particular culture doesn’t support this is to say that people within more conservative cultures or more conservative societies aren’t pushing for change internally. I would not want to imply that ideas such as girls’ education are purely Western or that people all over the world don’t think that these ideas should apply to their societies, too.

    Isaac, for a start, when I was talking about the cultural differences, I was talking about things like a marriage system. I did not mean education. Look, we who understand Pakistan know that our prophet, peace be upon him, whose example we follow, made seeking knowledge a sacred duty. So this nonsense about girls not being educated has nothing to do with religion. It’s not Islam.

    I wasn’t saying it was.

    We all want girls to be educated. All evidence shows that the moment the mother is educated, health care improves, and then we have fewer children. Its dividends are enormous. Where did the Taliban get this idea of girls not being educated? Believe me, it has nothing to do with our religion.

    We keep touching on this idea of the universal versus the context-specific. You’ve been criticized in the West for staying silent on China’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur population. Is that something that is hard for you to mesh with your other views? You’ve spoken eloquently about Palestine, about Kashmir, but is China something that it pains you not to be able to speak out on?

    When you are a developing country, when you have a hundred million vulnerable people, half below the poverty line and half just above, a price shock can send the other fifty below the poverty line. If you become the Prime Minister of two hundred and twenty million people, you have to be very careful what statements you make.

    Any moral statement about Uyghurs in China can affect the lives of these vulnerable people in your country. I always say that you have the luxury to be rich enough to make moral statements about other countries. Because Kashmir is a disputed territory between Pakistan and India, we do make statements on that. About Israel, it was the stated position of the founder of Pakistan and the situation is similar to what is happening in Kashmir. If we recognize Israel, we then lose the moral ground of holding on to Kashmir—that they should be given the right of self-determination or homeland. I speak on these two issues.

    But, any other issue, when you become the Prime Minister, you have to think of the consequences of making a statement. Pakistan is heavily dependent on China. For Pakistan to make a statement, with the Chinese being very sensitive to such criticism, it could be very costly. That’s why I have to be selective when I say things about human rights.

    I was just wondering if it brought you any pain, given how you talk about Islamophobia as a global problem.

    I saw Islamophobia grow in the U.S. After the Iranian revolution, there was fear in the Western world that there would be these Islamic revolutions that would topple Muslim countries. Then came Salman Rushdie and “The Satanic Verses.” People in the West could not understand the Muslim reaction. I was at that time playing international sports, so I knew the Western mind-set. I could understand why people in the West did not understand, because the Western idea of religion is completely different.

    But, for us in Pakistan, being vulnerable, as we are in the economic situation we’re facing right now, it is best to say, as we sometimes say in cricket, “You don’t have to play every ball. You can leave certain deliveries.” And that’s what I’ve done.

    People like to say that you are a hypocrite because you’ve been married many times and lived the life of a playboy. You’ve heard all this, I’m sure. I’m not so interested in hypocrisy. What I’m interested in is that you described the way people in more conservative societies meet, with the families deciding upon things. It seems that you have had other options in your life. Are you happy that you got to make those choices? What lesson do you think that may or may not hold?

    My life is, I think, a unique life, which hardly any—I don’t know of many people who could have led the life I’ve led. It was in two cultures. Basically, England became like a second home. Not many people have access to the contrasts of living two different lives. I’m probably better placed to understand and communicate about our culture to Western culture because I know how the West looks at our culture. And, to people here, I can communicate what the West is like.

    It’s not a question of hypocrisy. It’s a question of evolution, because I grew up in these two different systems. My experience is completely different from anyone else’s. It is not a question of hypocrisy or anything. It is just a process of evolution. I grew up in these two different worlds and understood both.

    Again, I’m not interested in the hypocrisy. But, when you say a process of evolution, what do you mean?

    Well, as I grew up, my ideas kept changing. The best way I can describe it is that I probably have challenged myself more than any other human being I know, because, normally, a professional international athlete, when you give up, you don’t have to do anything for the rest of your life. I didn’t have to do anything after I stopped playing; all I had to do was talk about cricket on television and so on.

    But I challenged myself. I first started building a cancer hospital [in Lahore] of the biggest charitable institution in this country, and then another one. Then I moved into politics. A different way of life. I have found that people who challenge themselves are like mountain climbers. The more they challenge themselves, it’s like the higher they get, the more they see. So your views keep changing and evolving. And that’s what I mean. So, having challenged myself more than others, I have experienced and evolved more than other people.

    You’re saying that, because you’ve challenged yourself more than others and evolved more than others, the freewheeling life that you’ve led is sort of available to you or should be available to you in a way that it shouldn’t be available to everyone?


    You can say that.

    What I mean is that, when you challenge yourself like I did and you keep asking yourself the two most important questions in life, which some people do and some never do, but lucky ones do—what is the purpose of existence and what happens to us when we die?—the answers only lie in the spiritual world. Hence, your direction in life changes. ♦

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