A Peace Exchange Bulletin Exclusive.
Imran Khan, the legendary cricket star and vocal opponent of US military policies in Pakistan, is considering a campaign for president on a peace platform, according to Peace and Justice Resource Center sources. Pakistan must schedule its next general election by not later than February 2013.
Khan’s campaign, not yet officially announced, already is rattling the secret arrangements by which the Pentagon has escalated its drone attacks over Pakistan’s tribal regions, conducted secret operations on the ground, and recently threatened a cross-border invasion. These current US policies are violations of Pakistan’s national sovereignty but tacitly permitted by Pakistan’s government and army.
“An attempt may be made to depict Khan as anti-American, but it’s not true,” says one well-connected media consultant, off-the-record. “Our policies have alienated the entire nation of Pakistan, and we are lucky that he’s a decent and rational human being.”
Khan is the most popular political figure in Pakistan, according to a June poll by the Pew Research Center. An October 30 rally in Lahore, led by Khan, rallied over 100,000 supporters and generated an “electric” atmosphere, according to the New York Times. Khan’s sister, Aleema Khan, told the PJRC, “it was not a rally, it was a turning point.” She went on to say, “people are still in shock at the turn out. It was not 100,000, it was 250,000 inside and outside the grounds and thousands stuck on road converging to the rally… all age groups and all denominations but mostly youth looking for change. This was not a typical rent-a-crowd, this was a revolt for change. And the crowds came to endorse him, as large as when Benazir [Bhutto] came back from exile in 1988, if not larger.”
Imran Khan was joined at the rally by Clive Smith, a global campaigner against drone attacks.
If he makes the run, the Khan campaign will be a channel for the powerful flood of peace sentiment now flowing through Pakistan. As an alternative to running for the presidency, Khan also could threaten the established institutions with a massive popular protest movement. In his speech, Khan distinguished between “the politics of movement” versus “traditional power-based politics”, saying, “Tehreek-e-Insaf is never going to win the traditional way.”
Khan opposes the US military campaign against alleged terrorists in the northwest tribal regions, and appears at rallies outside parliament against the US drone strikes.
In reference to the US, Khan said his goal is to be self-reliant, independent of US aid. “We have all the resources we need on and under our land,” he said, “but they are only mismanaged.” The relationship with America, he said, “should be one of friends and equals, not of slave and master.” On Afghanistan, Khan said, “as friends, we shall guide the USA on how to get out. The war in the northern areas should be stopped. Our army must pull out. The tribal chiefs in the jurga have presented their resolution to the government to pull out the Pakistani troops with a guarantee to control militancy in their tribal areas.”
A former member of the Pakistani parliament, Khan represents his own political party, Tehreek-e-Insaf [Justice], which has been an isolated phenomenon for years. Khan is both admired and dismissed for his fame as one of Pakistan’s most celebrated cricket stars. In addition, he has been criticized for a playboy lifestyle while living in London for a period. Since becoming engaged in the country’s politics fifteen years ago, however, he has been held twice under house arrest in 2006 and 2009, utilized his charitable resources to build Pakistan’s first cancer hospital, and campaigns steadily against the institutionalized corruption of the two major parties. While those parties have indulged in anti-American rhetoric while bargaining for US assistance, they have allowed the secret erosion of Pakistan’s sovereignty and been pressured into a bloody war against the Taliban and Haqqani networks based in sanctuaries near the Afghanistan border. As blowback, a Pakistan-centered Taliban has mushroomed in many regions of the country.
At Sunday’s rally, Khan declared, “we [Pakistanis] will help you in a respectable withdrawal of your troops from Afghanistan, but we will not launch a military operation in Pakistan for you.”
US policy towards Pakistan has veered wildly in recent weeks, from threats to invade with US troops if Pakistan’s army doesn’t neutralize the Taliban’s sanctuaries to seeking assistance from Pakistan in orchestrating peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan. The apparent US aim is to deploy drones and ground troops to force the Taliban and their Haqqani allies to negotiations, a bomb-them-to-the-bargaining table approach modeled on the Bosnian wars of the 1990s. That strategy succeeded when the Serbians lost their military support from the Russians, however, not because of Air Force bombardment ordered by President Bill Clinton. The late Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton Agreement on the Balkans, attempted a similar approach in Pakistan-Afghanistan before his heart attack last year, without visible results.
Now the charismatic presence of Imran Khan in Pakistan’s political equation could make it impossible for Pakistan’s political class to offer more concessions to the US military agenda. It could also be a red carpet towards American military disengagement.