“Like all Pakistanis I felt confusion, anger and humiliation”
On Sunday 1st May, Imran Khan was sitting waiting to take off on an early morning flight from Karachi. “I was about to turn my phone off,” he says, “but I kept on getting messages saying, ‘Is this true? Has it really happened?’ I wondered what they meant – the messages were coming from the US and Pakistan. When the plane landed, my mailbox was full, and there it was – ‘Bin Laden killed.’”
The death of the world’s most wanted man proved a lightning rod for criticism of Pakistan as a haven for terrorists. Khan, like most Pakistanis, felt caught up in the storm. His fury with the US is well documented – back in May he spoke out from his hilltop home above Islamabad, labelling their mission “cold-blooded murder”. But he was also seized by the same confused sentiments as many of his compatriots.
We meet at his former mother-in-law’s house on the edge of Richmond Park. Perched on a chair opposite me, his lean 58-year-old frame dressed casually in jeans and a blazer, he gives full vent to his feelings. “I’ve been to Waziristan and seen the wild rugged mountains,” he says. “It would have made sense that bin Laden was hiding there. But in Abbottabad?” He could also see how the glare of international attention shone particularly unforgivingly on President Asif Ali Zardari’s government. “First no response came from the government, and then our prime minister said we provided the intelligence, which begged the question: why didn’t we take him out? Then they panicked and made about four contradictory statements, which added to the confusion. On top of this we had an ally who didn’t trust us, so carried out the mission themselves. Like all Pakistanis I felt confusion, anger and humiliation.”
“I always believed I would win even when sometimes I got a real thrashing. Sport equips you with the ability to struggle and to take the knocks”
Could this maelstrom of national emotion also create opportunities for Khan? The months in the aftermath of bin Laden’s assassination have coincided with the official start of Khan’s international campaign to become Pakistan’s next prime minister. “In Pakistan, if you want a future, you have to fight for it by going into politics,” he says. “Most of the people in our country get disillusioned and take off. There’s a massive brain drain among the educated youth – but I want to tell them to stay and fight. Pakistan has huge coal reserves, billions of dollars of copper reserves, and gas reserves – it has the potential to be a rich country.” Yet this all fails to get exploited properly because of the government. “And that,” he says firmly, “has got to change.”
He shoots me a sharp glance. It strikes me that even though he’s sitting down, there’s a sense of a man in perpetual motion. Khan decided to put his own shoulder to the political wheel when he was 43. In 1996 he founded his party, Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice), with the explicit aim of fighting against political corruption. But his political career has struggled to gain momentum. In 2002, the last election that he contested, his party only won one seat, and he was batted into the political wilderness.
Yet cricket isn’t quite the right metaphor for what the former captain of Pakistan’s national team is undertaking now. If it were, the pitch would be filled with landmines.
The problem facing Khan in aiming to tackle Pakistani corruption is that it’s an impossibly complex issue. Just one per cent of the Pakistani population pays taxes. As a result the state as a means to deliver services is practically non-existent – and both the police and the judiciary are chiefly answerable to whoever has the most money or power. Interwoven with this is the prevailing system of kinship, where what outsiders might dub as “corrupt” behaviour is seen inside Pakistan as a product of the binding ties of familial and tribal loyalty.
As policy analyst Anatol Lieven has said, “Some of the toughest people holding the rotten tree in the Pakistani system together are at one and the same time parasites on that tree.” How can Khan, even if not corrupt himself, avoid collaborating with people who are? He sighs. “The only way you can fight corruption is if you’re willing to take on the status quo from outside. With the mandate of the people. Basically that’s what I came into politics for 15 years ago. If you can create independent institutions – like [the UK’s] National Audit Commission – which can hold people equally accountable, whether they’re in government or opposition, that is a way forward. But so far there’s been no independent accountability, because whoever’s been in power has been terrified that if it’s truly independent, they’d be caught in it.”
Certainly when it comes to the issue of whom the Pakistani electorate trusts with their money, Khan ranks above the government. When devastating floods swept Pakistan last year – affecting more than 20 million people – Khan decided to launch an emergency fundraising appeal, after it became clear that the government’s own fundraising attempts were not bringing in enough to help deal with the billions of pounds of damage to infrastructure, housing and agriculture. “The people don’t trust them. They don’t want to give to them,” he declares. “This year [following a second year of floods] they’ve launched an appeal again for funds, but noone’s responding except for the government’s own pocket businessmen, who need their support. It’s a total failure.”
Khan’s credentials as a fundraiser are more politically significant in Pakistan than they would be in most other countries – in counterpoint to the minimal taxes, almost five per cent of the country’s GDP is represented by charitable giving. They also stem from the event to which he owes the re-evaluation of everything in his life, the death of his mother from colon cancer in 1984. Up till that point the playboy Oxford graduate was a regular British tabloid and social diary fixture, his charisma significantly enhanced by the fact that he was widely acknowledged as the most talented cricketer that Pakistan had produced. As Khan himself writes: “In 1982 I was at my absolute peak as a fast bowler in terms of physical strength, experience and skill and was poised to go for the world record for the highest number of test wickets. I was so fit and strong that I felt nothing could stop me.” But then something did. Diagnosed with a stress fracture in his shinbone, he was told by doctors (wrongly) that he would probably never bowl again. Then, two years later, his mother was diagnosed with a stomach infection: it proved to be the cancer that would kill her within months.
It was over the next crucial years that Khan adopted the narrative of the man who faces impossible odds but overcomes them. His captaincy during the 1992 World Cup ended up as one of Pakistan’s great national triumphs, even though midway through the competition the team was third from bottom and “the bookies rated our chances 50 to one”, he says. This success in turn gave new life to his floundering campaign to raise funds for the Shaukat Kanum Memorial Hospital, which he had decided to set up in memory of his mother to provide free treatment for cancer patients. An encounter with an old Pashtun who could not afford treatment for his dying brother made Khan determined to create a hospital “where anyone could walk in without having to worry about the cost of treatment”. The gruelling fundraising process included several tours abroad to cajole wealthy donors, as well as a surprisingly successful campaign on the streets of Pakistan. “I was stunned by the generosity of ordinary Pakistanis,” he says. He also founded the Namal University Mianwali and is in the process of setting up a second hospital in Karachi. As an outsider it seems easy to see why Khan is experiencing the kind of surge of national popularity that he believes could see him win in 2013.
“You only win the war against terror when you win the people over to your side. The way to defeat fundamentalism is through intellect”
Insiders counter that Khan will be undone by Pakistan’s Westminster-style first-past-the-post electoral system. Even though Khan’s national popularity is massively on the rise, it counts for nothing unless he has strong candidates in constituencies across the country. Given that his party only won one seat in the last election that it contested, does he stand even a glimmer of a chance? “That was nine years ago,” he says. “Our groundswell has taken place over the last year, especially the last six months – the situation has changed completely. We have seen before with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto [founder of the Pakistan People’s Party] how if an idea catches fire in Pakistan it can help a party sweep the elections, where people across class lines and ethnic lines vote for the party rather than the candidates. We’ve brought in fresh faces as candidates, because it’s the only way to instigate change. Of course there will be candidates we select from political houses, but most of the big names are mired in corruption, and we want to make sure they’re clean.”
The former US security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said you need three As to run Pakistan: Allah, America and the army. Khan’s anger with America has been documented most prominently in his protests against the drone attacks in Waziristan in the north-west of Pakistan (a tribal area entirely inhabited by ethnic Pashtuns) – which started under President Bush, but have been stepped up under Obama: in 2010 alone there were 118. President Musharraf was roundly condemned for what was seen as his collaboration with the US. I ask Khan whether Musharraf’s collaboration with the US didn’t prevent what many Pakistanis would see as a greater evil, a US-India alliance against Pakistan?
His response is surprisingly conciliatory. “Not once did I ever think Musharraf should not have collaborated [in] helping the US in addressing those criminals. Anyone who saw 9/11 and saw that appalling sight of people jumping from those twin towers… everyone was touched. And the reaction in the entire Muslim world was that everyone – any sane person I met – wanted those criminals to be punished. So yes, Musharraf should have helped the US with things like intelligence on al-Qaeda. But no way should he have sent the Pakistani army into Waziristan. It took two years of collateral damage for our tribal people to rise up and form the Pakistan Taliban. That radicalised them, and we are in a mess because of it now.”
Khan’s regular lambasting of the US – he recites the war on terror statistics (35,000 dead, $70 billion lost to the country’s economy) like a mantra – have led some Pakistani insiders to believe he’s overly sympathetic to extremists, something he denies. “Since 2004, my party has condemned every single terrorist attack on civilians. And it’s on our website. Unfortunately every day there is a terrorist attack, so now it doesn’t even make the front page. And so the condemnation is reported from the president to the prime minister – but by the time my turn comes, it’s not even reported. But anyway, this is a nonsensical way of looking at it. That somehow if we condemn it, it will go away. I have constantly said that you only win the war against terror when you win the people over to your side. The way to defeat fundamentalism is through intellect. That’s why in my book [‘Pakistan: A Personal History’] I talked about rediscovering Iqbal.”
Muhammad Iqbal, who died in 1938, was the Muslim poet and philosopher who is considered to be the spiritual founder of Pakistan. Most importantly he interpreted Islam in a manner which challenged all forms of totalitarianism – religious, political, intellectual and economic. As Khan writes, “His powerful words challenge them [young Pakistanis] to become a shaheen [eagle], which hunts for its food, rather than a vulture which preys on the dead.” Today Khan says to me: “He was a genius. He dented fundamentalism more than any other individual in the subcontinent.”
Yet when I challenge him on how he might soften Pakistan’s institutionalised forms of extreme Islam – taking the power to shape the debate on blasphemy law away from the mullahs, for example – he concedes that it will be a while before any change can be effected. “At the moment it is impossible to have any debate on religion – imams of mosques have been killed for as little as saying that suicide bombing is un-Islamic. There’s such a polarisation and frenzy of fanaticism right now that there’s no question that first you’ve got to get out, disengage from the war on terror, and let things cool down.”
It’s interesting that Khan is fighting the election as a divorcee – a traditional country like Pakistan would far rather its prime minister were married. Even though his marriage to Jemima Goldsmith ended seven years ago (they have two sons, Sulaiman Isa and Kasim), the location of our interview at Goldsmith’s mother Annabel’s house shows that he still clearly has good relations with his former wife and in-laws. I ask him whether he would consider marrying again. “It’s difficult to say,” he replies. “Because right now where I stand, frankly, don’t know.” He frowns, no doubt thinking of how his political career helped destroy his marriage with Goldsmith. “At the moment it’s highly unlikely,” he continues, “given how much I’ve got on my plate.”
Khan’s drive and passion for his cause make you imagine that anything might be possible for him. But even with Pakistan undergoing a crisis of conscience in the wake of bin Laden’s assassination, does this political outsider with the international profile really believe he can win? “Well you know I’m the wrong person to ask,” he says, smiling. “Because whenever I used to step on the cricket field I always believed I would win even when sometimes I got a real thrashing. But if nothing else, sport equips you with the ability to struggle and to take the knocks, take failure. As far as I’m concerned, you only lose when you give up.”
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.