Portrait of Pakistani politician Imran Khan

Flirting with the Taliban

For several years now, support for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan has been growing in Pakistan. Nevertheless, opinion about one of the country's greatest sporting heroes is still divided. His supporters point to the progress made in the province ruled by his Movement for Justice Party, while liberal Pakistanis have criticised his opposition to military operations against the Taliban. By Shamil Shams

Recently, when the Pakistani Taliban named Imran Khan as one of a five-man team to engage in peace talks with the Pakistani government, liberal sections of society exclaimed, "See, we always said that Khan was one of the Islamists!" Although Khan immediately refused to take part in the talks, the controversial "Taliban Khan" tag that he has earned over the years got another endorsement.

Imran Khan is now one of the key players in Pakistani politics. His party came third in the May 2013 parliamentary elections and now rules the north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan. He wants Islamabad to make peace with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and sever its alliance with the US in the "war against terror".

"We will win this war if we disengage from the US," Khan recently told the media. "As long as the Taliban believe we are fighting the US war, they would declare jihad on us. This would be a never ending war," he added. This is certainly a very different image for the liberal person who studied at the University of Oxford and played in the English cricket league in the 1980s. Back then, Khan was discussed in the British press as much for his sporting talent as for his alleged love affairs.

Khan went on to become one of the most successful cricketers Pakistan has ever produced. Under his leadership the nation won its first Cricket World Cup in 1992. He later engaged in philanthropic work in Pakistan and married British writer and campaigner Jemima Goldsmith. The marriage didn't last long.

Khan entered politics in the late 1990s, forming a party called Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI, Movement for Justice). Although he was worshipped by millions in the country as a great cricketer, Khan was never considered a serious politician, even by his ardent fans, until 2011.

But now, for many of his fellow countrymen, the 61-year-old is the "last hope" in a country which is facing innumerable problems ranging from a dysfunctional economy to a protracted Islamist insurgency. For others, he is a right-wing politician who wants to appease the Taliban.

Imran Khan playing cricket (photo: Getty Images)
The subject of countless column inches over the years: although Khan has been in the news in recent years for his political aspirations, he was previously known not only for his skill on the cricket crease, but also for his high-profile romances

Who is the real Imran Khan?

So how did a person, who was doubted even by members of his own political party as a political alternative to the two main political families, the Bhuttos and the Sharifs, become a force to be reckoned with in Pakistan? Was it because of the support of the ubiquitous Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), as his critics claim, or was it the relentless political campaigning that Khan has been doing for more than 16 years? Khan's supporters believe it is the latter.

"Khan's stance on corruption, terrorism and nepotism in Pakistani politics has struck a chord with the masses, which are fed up with the traditional ruling elite. There are no corruption charges against him, no foreign assets," claims PTI activist in Islamabad, Khawar Sohail.

But some observers argue that Khan is backed by Pakistan's right-wing groups, in particular the military establishment, because of his "soft" stance on the Taliban and other Islamist militants. His rise in Pakistani politics, they claim, is due to his "good relations" with the ISI. Khan agrees with the organisation's position on matters such as Afghanistan and Pakistan's national security, they say.

Amima Sayeed, a development researcher from Karachi, believes that Khan most definitely supports right-wing extremists. He has not made a secret of it. "When the Swat peace deal between the government and the Taliban was introduced in 2009, Imran Khan was the first politician to support it. His collaboration with the Islamic Jamaat-e-Islami party is also a proof of his right-wing agenda," she says.

"He might not sound like a religious political leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami or the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, but his views about the region, the world and in particular about the militant groups in Pakistan, are sympathetic if not supportive of the religious right," says Owais Tohid, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal in Karachi. "He opposes a military crackdown on the militants and dismisses the idea that there has been an increase in the home-grown jihadist culture in Pakistan over the years."

Protest against US drone attacks in Pakistan (photo: AP)
In October 2012, Khan led a motorcade "march" to protest against US drone strikes in his country. He was joined by hundreds of Pakistanis and dozens of American activists. His opposition to the US and to military operations against the Taliban have earned him the title "Taliban Khan"

Eight months in power

But some analysts say that the debate about Khan's Islamist or liberal credentials is actually taking the spotlight away from his performance as a politician and the leader of a party that governs an important province of the country. Khan promised speedy justice and an end to corruption in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. During the election campaign, he also said his party would curb violence and bring peace.

Although Khan's PTI has been in power for almost eight months, critics say that most of his election promises have not been fulfilled. "The government in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has not delivered anything to people. Corruption and nepotism are rampant, and there hasn't been any significant development work in the past eight months," said Qasim Jan, a student in the north-western city of Peshawar.

"Khan has focused only on protesting against US drone strikes in the north-western tribal areas, blocking the NATO supply route to Afghanistan and coming up with all sorts of excuses in support of the militants," he added.

Islamabad-based writer Arshad Mahmood agrees: "Things are pretty much the same as they were in the past. Khan's party workers consider themselves to be above the law and won't co-operate with the administration. If the PTI officials don't obey the law, how will governance be improved?" asks Mahmood.

But Khan's supporters, which comprise mainly young Pakistanis, feel his administration is being unfairly criticised. "The government has made great strides towards a faster and more effective judicial system. The education budget of the province is much bigger than in other provinces. Yes, there are problems, but things are improving," says Zakria Zubair, a young entrepreneur in Islamabad. The 29-year-old PTI supporter also says that Imran Khan is playing the role of a competent opposition leader in the country's lower house of parliament.

Shamil Shams

© Deutsche Welle 2014

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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