“Extremism is not Pakistan’s problem. Pakistan’s problem is governance”; “Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia as examples of men who made their countries advance because they cleaned them up”
SIMON HEFFER: To many of a certain age, Imran Khan is first and foremost the great all-rounder who captained Pakistan’s cricket team and played the international game from the 1970s to the 1990s.
But these days, following an impressive career in philanthropy, Imran leads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, and after elections in early July hopes to become his country’s prime minister. The name of his party translates as “movement for justice”, and that describes the main thrust of Imran’s policies.
He founded the party in 1996 but it took until 2013 for it to have a national impact: now, as he speaks to me from his campaign headquarters in Islamabad, he believes he scents power.
“After 22 years of the wilderness in politics, now in the last five or six years the party is looking to be the front runner. The party is gaining strength. A lot of what we call ‘electables’ – people who know the science of contesting elections in the districts – are moving towards PTI. We’ve just had a big chunk join us – around 30 sitting members of parliament.
“In the districts they won’t back a party that they don’t think is going to win. So it’s an indication, this surge, that the party is now contesting in all four provinces, whereas the two main parties are just contesting in their own provinces – the People’s Party is confined to Sindh and PMLN [The Muslim League] to Punjab. In most places now we just have one-to-one fights. So we are in a very good position to be the only federal party in Pakistan.”
On the eve of our interview one of his leading opponents described Imran as a “pathological liar”. Is there any chance of this election being a fair fight?
“I’m credited in the cricketing history as the player who led the move to neutral umpires,” he says. “I have been campaigning since I came into politics for an independent justice system. I actually went to jail for about eight days in 2007 for supporting the chief justice who was removed by General Musharraf. Independence of the judiciary is one of the key elements of democracy. And another is free and fair elections.
“At the last election in 2013 every political party said the election was rigged. I said they should take just four sample constituencies at random out of the 400-odd that were disputed, and just see what happened at the elections. But because the ruling party was involved in it they refused, and I ended up doing a 424-day protest to have a judicial commission inquiring into the election.”
He knows his party’s hopes of success depend entirely on there being a fair fight.
“There are two main players in Pakistan at the moment. One is the judiciary, the other is the army chief, General Bajwa. Both are now saying, after the experience of 2013, that we will ensure free and fair elections. If there isn’t a level playing field then, well, we have two entrenched parties. Both have been in power at the federal level three times, and at provincial level six times. For newer candidates to contest against them, a lot will depend on whether the election is free and fair.”
Imran led the campaign to have Pakistan’s last leader, Nawaz Sharif, disqualified from office for corruption. “Nawaz Sharif’s family appeared in the Panama Papers leaks,” he says. “They had luxury apartments in Mayfair. So I as an opposition leader asked him in the National Assembly: ‘What was your source of income and when did the money go out of Pakistan? Did it go through legal channels or was it laundered?” Sharif told the Supreme Court that the family’s London property was acquired legally through investments in companies owned by the Qatari ruling family.
When it came to Imran, Sharif did not go down without a fight. “For asking those questions 10 cases were brought against me by the ruling party – by what the supreme court called the ‘mafia’: four in the anti-terrorism court, four in the election commission for my dismissal and two in the supreme court, one about my financial integrity. It took me one year fighting the government to clear my name.
“The supreme court initially threw out my case against Sharif as frivolous, then I took to the streets for massive street protests. So the supreme court took my case again. They gave Sharif ample time to answer those questions. He perjured himself in the Supreme Court. He is about to be sentenced in the anti-corruption courts, but he now is attacking the judiciary and he’s attacking the army – the only two institutions he does not control.”
Imran claims that Sharif’s policy “is to discredit our justice system, rather than answer these two questions, calling it a judicial coup when they disqualified him. He’s also hitting out at the army. The army’s role is that in the joint investigating committee, set up by the supreme court to investigate his corruption, there are two army intelligence officers. When he was still prime minister he could control the civilian part of the committee but he couldn’t control the army guys, so he is blaming them for acting against him.”
I ask him about Pakistan’s role in fighting Islamic extremism. “The key to Pakistan’s survival as a state is not the situation of extremists in our country,” he tells me. “We never had extremism in this country until the 1980s, when we joined the Afghan jihad. That’s when the forces of extremism were created by the CIA and launched into Afghanistan against the Soviets.
“But when the Soviets left, the CIA abandoned Afghanistan, and Pakistan, which had been the key ally, was also abandoned. And those groups ended up staying in this country. So our problem became what you call extremism, but is actually a fall-out from the Afghan jihad. We had four million Afghan refugees. Our country was flooded with drugs – because heroin was used to pay for the war – and Kalashnikovs. And the US just washed its hands of us.”
Imran was appalled that Pervez Musharraf, the then president of Pakistan, agreed to help George W Bush in Afghanistan. “Come 9/11, Pakistan again joins America in the war on terror, and the Americans ask Pakistan to take on the same groups that were invented by America in the Afghan jihad. These groups are indoctrinated in jihad, and regard fighting a foreign occupation as martyrdom and a holy war.
“Pakistan then had to fight them, and the country went through its worst period: 70,000 Pakistanis have died in this madness. Pakistan sent its army into the tribal areas: it is per capita the most armed place in the world. It is where the highest number of British troops died during the Raj. We had this awful situation where our army was confronting its own tribes, and the collateral damage caused what is known as the Pakistan Taliban.”
America will have its work cut out in relations with Pakistan should Imran win. “There was no Taliban in Pakistan, no al-Qaeda in Pakistan. No Pakistani was involved in 9/11. By sending our troops in to the tribal areas at the behest of the Americans to flush out 250 al-Qaeda operatives, we caused what virtually became a civil war. We had bomb attacks, we had suicide attacks, the country went through hell.
“Now we are made the scapegoat for America’s failure. No wonder it annoys people like us. It is a travesty of justice. But Pakistan has to work with the US. No matter what we think of Trump, the US is a superpower. A country like ours has to work with them. But it can’t go on like this. Our country is bearing all the burden of a flawed and failed policy in Afghanistan.”
Could Britain help? “I think Britain has a much better understanding of the Afghan situation than the Americans: but I fear Britain doesn’t have much clout with the Americans.”
He rejects the idea that Pakistan has a problem with extremism. “We don’t have any more extremists, or liberals, than any other part of the world. Every society has its extremists. When I was a student in England skinheads went around beating up people because of the color of their skin. Extremism is not Pakistan’s problem. Pakistan’s problem is governance. We are not going down because of terrorists. We are going down because our governance system has collapsed because of corruption. Corruption is what causes a country to be a third world country.”
He cites Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia as examples of men who made their countries advance because they cleaned them up. “Here, it’s not just the prime minister. The finance minister is accused of money laundering and of absconding. The foreign minister is accused of having foreign accounts in Dubai. Money that should be spent on human beings and human development is then siphoned out of the country, or on mega projects that have mega kickbacks.”
His electoral optimism is rooted in the current condition of Pakistan’s justice system. “It is moving in the right direction. It is unprecedented in Pakistan’s history that the courts should disqualify a prime minister as entrenched as Sharif. We need to de-politicize institutions and put people of merit on top.
“The most difficult institution to reform in Pakistan is the police. The police are totally corrupt. In KP [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the former North-West Frontier province where PTI rules] 1,200 police died fighting the Taliban. They were protecting themselves rather than protecting anyone else. They were also corrupt. KP was the first province to reform the police. Today any independent survey shows it has the country’s best police system. We have taken out 500 police accused of corruption. What was the most volatile province is the safest today.”
His province was where in 2012 Malala Yousafzai narrowly avoided assassination by the Taliban for speaking out about extremist opposition to the education of girls. Imran is committed to two out of three new schools in the country being for girls if he is elected: the policy already pertains in KP.
“Even in tribal areas they now want to have women educated. There might be logistical problems – people don’t want their daughters going too far from home for security reasons – but no-one I have met objects to this policy. Nowhere in Pakistan do I find resistance to this.”
Imran knows Pakistan has other more routine problems. “It is facing probably its worst ever financial crisis. This country is now on the brink. It can’t take any more. Half the population is now hovering around the poverty line.” But he can see a way out of it. “If we fix our governance, the other problems will die down. If the rule of law falls, then you have all sorts of mafia rising up. We have spent most of our resources on health an education. And people respond to this. And our ratings have doubled.”
He has brought more employment to KP through tourism. “Internal tourism has taken off. We had never opened any new resorts since the British left: but now we are going to open four new resorts a year.”
But so serious is the security problem in Pakistan that its cricket team plays its home test matches in Abu Dhabi rather than in Lahore or Karachi. If Imran wins, will the game return to his country? “One of the other great collateral damages of the war on terror was cricket,” he says, with feeling. “I feel that we will resume test cricket. We will again become a cricketing superpower.”
(The Telegraph, UK)