By Faisal J. Abbas, Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English.
Long after his cricket heydays, 60-year-old Imran Khan is once again inspiring young Pakistanis on an unprecedented scale.
With just a few months left until the upcoming general elections, many in Pakistan are now hoping Khan leads their country into stability and prosperity, just like the former cricket captain led the national team into winning the World Cup in 1992.
Khan is the founder and chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – also known as the “Movement for Justice” – which now boasts 7 million members.
According to various opinion polls, including that of the U.S.-based Pew Global, he is the “most popular politician in Pakistan today.”
In an interview with Al Arabiya News Channel, Khan described the PTI as the “only party that could bring change” to his country.
“People are sick of the old political leadership, who have all been in power in the last five years and have led Pakistan to destruction,” he added.
The PTI is seen as a rather modern movement; using social media and text message voting whereas Khan himself represents a different breed of politicians.
Unlike most of Pakistan’s other leaders, Khan isn’t a military man nor does he hail from a family of politicians such as the Bhuttos or the Sharifs.
As such, many observers are sceptical as to whether or not his surging popularity will hit a glass ceiling formed by the country’s geopolitical realities when the time arrives for the general elections.
A specific date is yet to be set for the elections, but the Pakistani Parliament must be dissolved by March 2013.
However, even the most sceptical of critics were surprised to listen to former President General Pervez Musharaf propose an electoral alliance with Khan last month.
“There is more terrorism and extremism in Pakistan than ever in our history thanks to him (Musharaf),” he said.
As such, Khan has declined the offer and described it as “political suicide.”
He gives three reasons as to why he would never ally himself with Musharaf; firstly, because of what he described as immunity guarantees that the former president brokered to bring in his successor Asif Zardari – the current President of Pakistan.
Second, Khan says Musharaf is responsible for the killing of Nawab Akbar (the head of the Bugti tribe of Baloch) in Baluchistan and the Baluchistan insurgencies which came after that.
Finally, Khan argues it was wrong for Musharaf to send Pakistan’s troops under American pressure to fight internally, a conflict which left 50,000 Pakistanis dead.
A different relation with America
As far as his plans go following an election win, Khan said the first thing he would do is disengage Pakistan from the American war on terrorism; adding that such disengagement would make the “Jihad syndrome” go away.
Khan is known to be an outspoken critic of American drone attacks in Pakistan; describing them as a “violation of all humanitarian laws,” particularly as they don’t distinguish between criminal and suspect as they are operated from thousands of miles away. He also believes they are a violation to Pakistan’s sovereignty.
When I previously interviewed Imran Khan in 2008, he was very optimistic at the prospect of the then U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama winning the elections alongside Vice President Joe Biden.
“If anyone understands this area from American politicians it’s Joe Biden,” he said back then.
I ask him if he still stands by his views.
Khan believes that while Obama and Biden had their heart in the right place; they are surrounded by generals and military advisors, who he believes didn’t give them correct guidance.
“They are losing the war, because they are losing the hearts and minds of the people,” he said, adding that today there is more anti-Americanism and more hatred due to the Obama administration’s handling of the situation.
After tens of thousands of people were killed, with no end to the war as of yet, Khan stresses that it is time the U.S. had friends, not lackeys.
“We will be friend of the U.S. but we’re not going to be slaves of the U.S.,” he said.
Syria, India and cricket
As for the situation in Syria, Imran Khan describes the deadly conflict as “a mess.”
“I believe in democracy, I do not believe in these dictatorships but the problem is there’s a different stake when it comes to pro-U.S. dictators and … anyone who’s perceived not to be pro-U.S. like Libya or Syria. It’s the double standards that are causing problems,” he said.
However, some observers have said that Khan is unwilling to criticize Syrian President Bashar Assad publically.
“I cannot understand any head of state killing his own people,” Khan said in response.
As for relations with India, Khan said his country and its neighbour came very close to resolving their issues, particularly Kashmir.
He considers that both countries should follow in the footsteps of the Europeans, in opening their borders and allowing free economic flow.
“The answer lies in politically solving the issue,” said Khan.
As for cricket, he pledges to fix the sport’s structure in Pakistan, by tapping local talent so the nation will be “unbeatable,” he said
The interview with Imran Khan was aired with Arabic dubbing on Al Arabiya’s main news channel on Dec. 2, 2012 at 16:00 GMT and 23:30 GMT.