Former cricket star and would-be prime minister calls for increased civilian rule and claims American backing ‘enslaves country’
Pakistan must detach itself from American influence and pull out of the “war on terror” in order to create prosperity and achieve regional peace, Imran Khan , the Pakistani opposition leader , has said.
Buoyed by last week’s dismissal of prime minister Nawaz Sharif , Khan is eyeing Pakistan’s highest political office, and said he was ready to change the country’s international relations.
“Sadly, our ruling elite took dollars from the Americans and went into this war,” Khan told the Guardian. “It has created such hatred in our society. It has created turmoil.”
His comments come as the US considers how to approach the conflict in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The White House recently announced it was withholding $50m (£38m) in military aid to Pakistan for its failure to crack down on jihadi groups.
However, if it were up to Khan, Pakistan would reject US aid entirely.
“Aid cripples the country,” he said. “It enslaves the country. You are dictated decisions from abroad. I’m completely against this.”
Khan, who entered politics 20 years ago after a celebrated cricket career and marriage into British high society, received a boost when Pakistan’s supreme court disqualified Sharif for dishonesty.
Though his party occupies a fraction of the seats held by the ruling party, he insists that he stands a fighting chance at next year’s election. If he succeeds, he said, he will also strengthen civilian rule.
“I firmly believe that the army should not have a role in running the government,” he said.
Some analysts have argued that last week’s court ruling serves the opposite purpose by toppling Sharif, who feuded with the military for decades. Khan has also been accused of acting as a lackey for the army, beginning with his 126-day mass protests in Islamabad in 2014 over alleged election fraud.
Khan retorted: “Transparency and accountability of leadership strengthens democracy. Free and fair elections strengthen democracy. How is this strengthening the army?”
The case against Sharif stems from the leaked Panama Papers , and suspicions that he acquired real estate in London through offshore wealth. Khan filed a petition against Sharif, calling for his dismissal.
The Guardian met a buoyant Khan at his estate overlooking the Bani Gala Hills on the outskirts of Islamabad. At 64, he still speaks with a sportsman’s boast. Yet, though he soars higher than ever politically, his path to power is long.
His party, Movement for Justice (PTI), holds 33 seats in parliament, against the ruling PLM-N’s 188. Even if he takes some of the 47 seats belonging to the largest opposition party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), he will need mass defections among government supporters to gain even a hung parliament.
Political blocks in Pakistan tend to be solid and the popularity of Shehbaz Sharif, who will replace his ousted older brother as prime minister , further complicates the task.
Khan, however, said numbers did not reflect reality, maintaining that the 2013 election was rigged.
Khan cuts an unusual figure in Pakistani politics. A conservative Muslim who found faith late, his life bears traces of his former sporting days when his movements among British aristocracy earned him a playboy reputation.
At his lavish estate, built when he was still married to Jemima Goldsmith, Khan was accompanied by a large dog, which many Muslims consider unclean.
I will stand up for what I believe is in the interest of Pakistan. It doesn’t mean I am anti anyone
Steeped in wealth, he says he fights for the common man. Portraying himself as a bulwark against corruption, he is accused in the supreme court of not declaring assets, including foreign funding. Khan calls the allegations baseless and vindictive.
With a populist bent and fiercely opposed to American overreach in the region, Khan shares traits with Hamid Karzai, the former Afghan president whom western allies found obstinate to work with.
Like Karzai, Khan favours negotiations with the Taliban, to the extent that he has earned the moniker Taliban Khan. And, like Karzai, Khan is often, against his own objection, labelled anti-American.
He protested: “Anyone who is a nationalist and cares for his own country, and does not jump at whatever the Americans ask you to, is considered anti-American.
“I will stand up for what I believe is in the interest of Pakistan. It doesn’t mean I am anti anyone,” he said. But sending troops into the tribal areas to fight fellow Pakistanis on behalf of the US, he added, “is madness”.
“Eighty years of British experience in the tribal areas – if you read about that, you would never do this stupidity,” he said.
If Khan beats the odds and sweeps into power, he will inherit a decades-long tug-of-war between the military and civilian government.
Last year, tensions came to a head when the Dawn newspaper reported leaked minutes from a showdown between Sharif and the intelligence chief, Rizwan Akhtar, over the military’s support for jihadi groups. But Khan said any military would have been angry with such behaviour from a civilian leader.
“You can’t do that to your own army who is fighting in Fata, fighting in Balochistan. Without the army it would be in chaos,” he said.
Still, Khan insisted he would be able assert control over the army.
“The constitution gives me that power,” he said.
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