Pakistan’s ‘dangerous moment’: Imran Khan builds a comeback on bashing the U.S. – Grid News

Want to know more about today's Supreme Court EPA ruling?

Pakistan’s ‘dangerous moment’: Imran Khan builds a comeback on bashing the U.S.

Imran Khan has never been an ordinary man. Not as a sports celebrity, not as a philanthropist and certainly not now as the disgruntled former prime minister of Pakistan.

In April, he was ousted from office via a parliamentary vote of no confidence — and ever since, Khan has taken to blaming the United States for orchestrating his fall, hand in hand with his political opponents. His coalition partners had decided suddenly to part ways with him — too suddenly, according to Khan, for it to have been their idea alone. Now addressing huge crowds across the country, Khan is asking Pakistanis a simple but highly provocative question: “Do we want to be the slaves of the United States, or do we want real freedom?”

This week, Khan led his supporters on a long march from Peshawar to the capital, Islamabad — a protest that provoked violent clashes between police and his followers. There, he issued an ultimatum to the government to announce a new election date in six days; otherwise he would return to the capital in full force. Khan is confident he can win — but the government has shown no signs of agreeing to his demands. Even in a nation that has known all kinds of chaos and violent political upheaval in its short history, it’s a profoundly dangerous moment.

Khan insists that those in power now are “thieves,” put there by the U.S., and he has warned Pakistani voters to refrain from voting for those with assets abroad (indirectly referring to the current government), insisting that their loyalty will never be with the people. It’s “easy to be enslaved by foreign powers,” Khan said. He is choreographing a message that resonates with many — maybe most — in Pakistan. And one that may well lead to a violent collision.

ADVERTISEMENT

Washington is watching all this closely — because for all the policy differences and disagreements, Pakistan remains an important partner. Its strategic importance, nuclear weapons stockpile and proximity to Afghanistan and China make the country highly relevant for U.S. national security interests. Instability in Pakistan has never been a good thing for the United States. And instability is here now — as Khan and his followers take to the streets.

An athlete’s rise — and fall

Pakistan as a nation has long been swept in storms of political instability, though where these turbulent winds come from — and where Pakistanis say they come from — is another story.

In the country’s checkered history, powerful army chiefs have traditionally been the ones who fire elected leaders and then claim to “save the country” by taking over the reins of government. This flawed course of action has resulted in four generals misruling the country for some 33 years; thankfully, those experiences have rendered the idea of direct military rule unfashionable in Pakistan. Politicians — a blend of right and left, dynastic elites and opportunists (with some exceptions) — have generally done better when they had their chances. This makes the story of Khan’s rise to power all the more interesting.

Few things are considered more sacred in Pakistan than the game of cricket. It is an almost holy sport, worthy of utmost respect — and its star players even more so. Khan was thus blessed with a stellar reputation from the beginning — he was Pakistan’s golden boy who won for the nation the coveted World Cup in 1992. After retirement, he used his celebrity status to raise funds to establish Pakistan’s first world-class cancer hospital. For better or worse, politics became his next obsession.

Khan named his political party Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf, the movement for justice. Given rampant injustice in Pakistan, the idea was supposed to catch fire — but for the better part of two decades, it didn’t. His party remained more of a one-man show.

ADVERTISEMENT

Realizing that politics is the art of the possible, Khan grew steadily more vocal on issues that were popular countrywide: criticizing the way the U.S.-led war on terror was being waged and chastising the nation’s rulers for “fighting America’s war.” In parallel, he became a rare voice for the voiceless, speaking of widespread public corruption many felt they could do nothing about. There, he got the attention he was craving.

Most important, the powerful military leaders found in Khan their soulmate, thus birthing a marriage of convenience. All the army had to do was wink at some smaller political parties and independent candidates to support Khan, and voilà, he emerged as prime minister following the 2018 national elections.

He soon found that governing Pakistan was no cakewalk. Its economy was in shambles. During his campaign, Khan had said he would prefer death to pleading for help from the International Monetary Fund. On that, he had to backtrack eventually. Some Arab princes helped, but only hesitatingly and insufficiently, dashing Khan’s dream of pursuing an “independent” foreign policy. Khan idealized Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad — both highly ambitious political adventurists — and that stirred unease among the country’s military leadership. Among other things, Khan took to steering the country’s foreign policy without paying much heed to the views of the army brass.

Pakistan’s military has long been self-obsessed, almost egomaniacal. For Khan, the generals were a ticking time bomb; it was only a matter of time before they would cross Khan’s red lines, interfering more often and more aggressively than he was ready to accept. And it happened sooner than expected.

Khan, ever the masterful cricket bowler and inspiring team leader, knew there could be only one captain. And that would be him, no matter the cost. The military, however, thought the same — and with a stronger force behind them, took the game for themselves, sweeping the rug out beneath him, ending their union in what can only be described as a messy divorce. On April 10, Imran Khan was out of power.

ADVERTISEMENT

The comeback strategy: Blame the U.S.

But Khan has not left without a fight, and it is doubtful his fighting spirit will do anything but grow. He has conveniently taken advantage of long-standing anti-U.S. sentiment in the country — something the army has also fed into over the years. It was the perfect way out for Khan — appealing to an ever-bleeding wound that would tug on the country’s heartstrings. So Khan now blames his removal from power on an American conspiracy, a “foreign-backed coup,” as he puts it. He claims that his refusal to provide military bases to the U.S. for tackling terrorist activity from Afghanistan was the trigger. He says U.S. officials called for his ouster in a diplomatic meeting, but has offered no public evidence for the claim.

The U.S. has denied the allegations. And the reality is that if the Americans had wanted to conduct a coup, they would have likely found a more efficient and subtle way of doing so.

Since Khan’s fall from power, his language has infuriated his detractors, whose primary complaint is that Khan thinks too highly of himself. For his part, Khan portrays himself as a victim, and increasingly as a revolutionary. And the reality is that he has captured the spirit of the population in a way few others do. He is artfully directing people’s wrath at the worsening state of affairs — unemployment, inflation, corruption and lawlessness — and combining that with the frequent charge that the U.S. is to blame for his ouster. All of this is helping Khan amass the political capital for his return to power.

The fire of Khan’s popularity burns brighter than ever today because he has managed to do the one thing others have failed to — capture the imagination of the young, especially the educated young. His entire brand is built upon being seen as the cool, handsome, liberal change-maker, finally there after years of political dynasties and corruption. He is supposed to represent the great sweep of change, the first signs of sunlight after a storm. All indications are that the strategy is working.

Unfortunately, very few Pakistanis today realize that if Pakistan is to truly change, it comes down not to one man, but to the need for broader political awareness and a collective wake-up call. In a country swamped by poverty, where the elites live better than Western royalty, clinging to designer goods in their London and New York apartments, priorities must be reexamined. The elites have prioritized themselves for far too long, and Pakistan cannot change until they do. Khan’s vision of a self-reliant nation first requires self-reflection — that is Pakistan’s challenge now, and it’s not an easy one.


Khan has been a paradox of sorts — on the one hand, he’s the pluralist with jean-wearing, music-listening urban supporters. On the other hand, he’s been labeled “Taliban Khan” for his extremist sympathies. Even as prime minister, he once referred to Osama bin Laden as a martyr. A walking contradiction, indeed. The very reason millions have loved Khan is the reason others have hated him; his personality is consuming, intense and certainly not for all. Indeed, a number of his supporters have been widely criticized for nasty, rude behavior, especially on social media.

So what’s his grand plan? At its heart, standing up to the West, particularly the U.S., and feeding off the long-simmering resentment that began following the 9/11 attacks, and the war on terror that cost more than 80,000 lives inside Pakistan. The current resentments also have to do with the war in Ukraine. Khan was in Moscow exchanging smiles with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the country’s invasion of Ukraine. In one sense, it was incredibly bad timing, but it’s dangerous to ignore the power of cheap oil and cheap wheat, and what these mean for the poor in Pakistan. Khan has pursued such deals with Putin, disregarding U.S. sanctions, and for this he is seen by many as pursuing Pakistan’s self-interests without fear and without concern for what the U.S. and its European allies tell Pakistan to do. It’s just one more reason for his widespread support and those crowds who are marching at his side.

At the end of the day, Khan is neither down nor out of people’s hearts and minds, and it may be a long time before he is. The massive public protests and rallies of his supporters are there for everyone to see. There may be more violence ahead, but if there’s one thing Khan won’t do, it’s surrender. He’s a boxer in the ring, and the crowd chants for him to stand tall — louder now than ever.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Hassan Abbas
    Hassan Abbas

    Special Contributor

    Hassan Abbas is the distinguished professor of international relations at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. His latest book is "The Prophet’s Heir: The Life of Ali ibn Abi Talib."