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, » …