POST TIME: 10 July, 2018 00:00 00 AM
Imran Khan stands on the threshold of history
Peter Oborne

Imran Khan stands on the threshold of history

It’s been a long journey for Imran Khan. He founded his political party, PTI (Pakistan Movement for Justice), in 1996, and for many years made no real progress. Many mocked him. The Guardianjournalist Declan Walsh dismissed him as ‘a miserable politician’, whose ideas and affiliations had ‘swerved and skidded like a rickshaw in a rainshower’.

PTI did make a limited amount of progress in the 2013 general elections, when it emerged as the second largest party by national vote and with 30 parliamentary seats. Furthermore, Khan’s party secured control of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province). But none of this was enough to challenge for national power.

With only months to go until the general election, the house of Sharif is rudderless and broken. Following the fall of Nawaz, it cannot even agree on a candidate to lead the party into the election. And it is accused of stashing huge sums of money abroad.

Imran Khan has one further advantage. The 65-year-old has repeatedly presented himself as the virtuous outsider promising to clean up the endemic corruption of Pakistan’s politics. The enforced resignation of Nawaz Sharif is therefore seen as a profound vindication of Khan himself.

So when I drove up the hill to Khan’s elegant house overlooking Islamabad, I wasn’t going to visit a mere commentator on Pakistani politics. I was going to visit a man who could potentially transform this vast Muslim country, now home to more than 200 million people.

I started by asking him about President Trump’s recent announcement that he would send American troops back into Afghanistan and the accompanying threat that Pakistan ‘has much to lose by continuing to harbour terrorists’.

Wearing tracksuit bottoms and sipping fruit juice, Khan rubbished the President’s stance. ‘It shows a concrete misunderstanding of the whole Afghan issue,’ he told me. He compared the current situation to Vietnam in the 1970s, when the US blamed insurgents crossing the border from Cambodia for its failure to stamp out the Viet Cong. ‘We all know what happened in Cambodia after that,’ he said. ‘It’s very similar to what’s happening right now.’

The Taleban, Khan explained, is an ‘indigenous movement’ that cannot be dealt with by military force. ‘For 16 years [the US] have been trying to use [the] military to crush the Taleban movement and it has failed. And it will fail again. This is just a recipe for a failed policy. What they’re doing now is just endless war.’ I then asked Khan about Trump’s plans to drop certain Obama-era requirements for conducting drone strikes, which could create an upsurge in attacks on Pakistani soil. While the Pakistani government has always publicly condemned US drone attacks as an infringement of its national sovereignty, a string of reports have cited evidence of tacit approval behind the scenes. ‘We will not grant them permission,’ he replied.

He said that he will stand up to the US, but Khan may have just as difficult a task standing up to his own armed forces, which have ruled Pakistan for almost half of its 70-year history and have exercised a strong influence when not in power.

Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam recently labelled Khan a mere pawn of the military. The Sharifs have recently fallen out with the armed forces and a common allegation against Khan is that he has become very close to the military establishment.

But he claimed he would not kowtow. ‘A democratic government should sit down and form its policy and then get the army on board,’ he said. ‘If there is any impediment by the army, I should be able to say, “Look, I’m the chief executive.” And then, if I can’t implement my policy, I should be able to say, “Look, I can’t do it, and I resign.”’

At this, we turned to his country’s convulsive domestic politics. To the detriment of traditional parties, radical groups with links to militancy and terrorism have been making remarkable inroads into electoral politics, most recently in last month’s Lahore by-election, where two hardliners together received 11 per cent of the vote.

So how comfortable is the PTI leader with the prospect of sharing a ballot paper with people who have been involved in violence?

‘I think it’s alarming in the sense that the traditional religious parties have lost steam,’ he said. ‘On the other hand, the beauty of democracy is — and this is what has happened to the other religious parties — that once you bring these guys into parliament, whatever they said before gets moderated. They move towards the centre.’

The Spectator