Originally published March 1, 2010
Traveling around Pakistan is a challenge for an American nowadays. It’s not the highways. It isn’t even that our second vehicle was “armed to the teeth” as we weaved through traffic and up and down superhighways and dusty back roads. The difficulty is the landscape itself, a land, at times, very American in appearance and yet strange and wondrous too. It was the similarities that scared us.
We were there as Americans for a series of lectures and meetings to discuss economics and regional politics at universities and “think tanks.” Pakistan, a country of poverty and wealth, a nation threatened like no other was much like looking in a mirror, perhaps a mirror into America’s future.
A couple of nights ago, author and economist Jeff Gates and I along with Editor Raja Mujtaba of Opinion Maker, the controversial open forum where academics, military leaders, and political dissidents from that region fight it out daily on the internet, met with Pakistani political leader, Imran Khan.
Meeting Khan was important to us because he is the only political figure in Pakistan that is widely respected in Afghanistan, a nation that could, potentially, bog Americans down for years in a bizarre and indefinable combination of “counter-terrorism” and traditional tribal warfare. Only Khan is respected on both sides of the border, Khan and General Aslam Beg, former Army Chief of Staff in Pakistan.
That there is suspicion between Pakistan and Afghanistan is an understatement. Millions of Afghanis and Pakistanis are, not only ethnically identical but members of the same tribes, even families. Today, up to 4 million refugees from Afghanistan live in Pakistan’s tribal areas. These refugees combined with elements of a Pakistani Taliban have created a drain on Pakistan’s resources, a breeding ground for religious extremism, and provided safe havens for Taliban sects that are clearly extremist, terrorist, and criminal in nature.
With as many as 50 million people considering themselves “Taliban,” most non-extremist, differentiating between good and bad “Taliban” has been difficult and, in the case of American efforts, something approached with questionable intent.
Not that many years ago, the United States and Pakistan trained and armed the Mujahedeen, both Afghan and foreign fighters to overthrow Soviet dominance in Afghanistan. A generation later, our failure to demilitarize and rehabilitate these elements and the region has led to untold instability, world terrorism, and a war against Pakistan supported by terrorist elements aided by massive funding and sophisticated weaponry and training whose origin can be traced with little difficulty to India and Israel.
Man or legend?
If a man describes “controversy” it is Imran Khan. Few people define the hopes of Islamic moderates as does Khan. This “Khan’s” empire, a “superstar” athlete of the cricket world, a sport unknown to most Americans, consists of that huge portion of the world our maps used to the color pink, the regions we used to call the British Empire, a region covering 40% of the globe. When the British conquered the world they took their most beloved sport with them, cricket.
What if an American baseball pitcher won 30 games a year with an ERA of 2.0 and batted .400? Then surround him with controversy, a Muslim with a Jewish ex-wife, looks and charm, and a reputed “way with the ladies” that keeps the tabloids stalking him and, oh, I forgot to mention this, make him the head of a political party. You will now begin to understand the enigma of Imran Khan
It gets worse.
He is Pashtu, a Pashtun, one of the same ethnic group Americans know as the Taliban, a group well out of the mainstream in Pakistani politics. In a country ruled by the “Europeanized” Punjabi and Sindh, a Pashtu political leader makes Barack Hussein Obama seem “mainstream.”
It gets worse still.
Khan is not only a controversial celebrity but an outspoken reformer fighting government corruption. Khan is a friend of Americans but the strong enemy of American influence in Pakistan and very critical of the west for its mistrust of Islam. He believes the west doesn’t know the difference between a Taliban extremist and a moderate Sufi cleric but can pick out a Methodist from a Lutheran in seconds.
Imagine an American sports hero who is an Oxford-trained economist, sponsored the nation’s largest cancer center, and is now building a university for those who would never otherwise see higher education.
We had to meet this guy.
His political offices were moderate. We had visited political parties in Pakistan that looked more like Ivy League campuses. Khan’s party was used furniture, peeling paint and the sound of work, footsteps up and downstairs, and a lot of noise. It was an election night in Rawalpindi. A seat in the national assembly was up for grabs and charges of election fraud had charged the air.
I almost felt I was back in America. For the office of a man whose very mention that I planned to meet him had a flight attendant asking for my autograph, it was unexpected. Khan wasn’t a dilettante or elitist, he is a fighter, capable of holding his own in any political arena. The language was easy to understand. He believed what he said and knew what he was talking about.
We weren’t used to that.
If you ignored the TV crews outside, you noticed a few things. There were no lights, power had been cut, a result of terrorism’s costs to Pakistan. Khan had a small rechargeable lantern on his desk; he turned it so we could find out way and had us sit down. It was clear that we hadn’t entered the corridors of power. This was something else entirely.
We had walked in on a crusade for political accountability and reform. If this were America, it would have been that “third party” we all dream of but never get.
Not what we expected.
When Khan called President Musharraf “George Bush’s poodle” and threatened protests when Bush visited Pakistan in 2006, he was placed under house arrest. When Musharraf declared a “national emergency” in 2007, Khan called for his immediate arrest and execution for treason. Khan was jailed for this, went on a hunger strike and was released.
You can’t help but love a guy like that!
Khan wasn’t a tabloid playboy, though he looked the part, that and more, nor was he much like anything we have seen in America in many years. Khan believed what he said and could more than hold his own on any subject from economics to foreign policy, with depth, clarity, and understanding, not only of economic theory but someone with solutions, not just “sound bites” but solid programs, economic reform, political justice.
All of this was steeped in a passion, a drive you could feel across the room. It was electric. Mostly, however, I could feel his frustration. Reforming politics is impossible, certainly in America, at the best of times. Pakistan is beset by enemies on all sides, terror attacks are daily across the country and the threats are far worse than debt and unemployment. People are fighting for their lives.
The interview turned around.
Khan asked us about everything. I was grilled about American veterans, how they were treated, how their families suffered during multiple deployments how much Americans sacrificed in a war he believes is being handled without adequate understanding of the factors involved and the solutions available.
Khan wanted to know everything about America, as we saw it, opinions on the war, 9/11, and why Americans believed what the press told them about Pakistan and moderate Islam. His point, of course, is that extremism in Pakistan’s tribal areas was the result, as it had been in Afghanistan, of lack of education.
In the aftermath of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had forgotten to rebuild the battleground of that war, Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan where the millions of refugees had settled, areas now subject to poverty and extremism as the “war on terror” had virtually collapsed Pakistan’s economy and destroyed much of its infrastructure, more than any western nation had imagined or bothered to look into.
Few European or American schools have soldiers, armored personnel carriers, and “TSA level” security for their children.
What we saw.
Pakistan’s current president, Zardari, may actually be less popular than “W” after either Katrina or the infamous “Bush financial crash” when real estimates of approval entered the single-digit range. Being an “unsuccessful politician” in Pakistan and hated by “party line” newspapers is a clear sign of personal integrity.
Zardari actually passed a law making it a crime to tell jokes about him. This must be hard on a lot of people. Pakistan is a country of folks who know humor. Sometimes it is all that keeps them alive.
Meeting an honest politician, one willing to tell Bush, Israel or anyone else exactly how he feels, to the point of doing jail time for it is a bit of a shock. You could ask Khan something and he would simply tell you what he thinks, tell you the truth. Combining this with being educated, devoutly religious, and with an established history of charity work and paying the price for standing up for what is right, even at great personal cost, Imran Khan is an enigma.
How would Americans view Khan?
Jeff and I looked at each other the second we left the door. Jeff remembering his years as Chief Counsel for Senate Finance hit on it immediately: “We could get this guy elected President of the United States in a flat minute.”
Thinking back at the last 40 years, there was nobody who could stand up to this guy, media, debate, programs, especially if women were voting.
What would Americans really do?
Khan would be crucified by the press. He would demand an end to corruption, end foreign influence in Washington, Israel, China, India, Saudi Arabia, everyone. The wars would end, we would begin addressing the root causes of terrorism, defense spending would plummet, and America would start working again.
He would be dead in a week.
Why think about a guy from Pakistan?
The information revolution has made the world small. Imran Khan is “out there,” on YouTube, the internet, not so much in America but people know him. He isn’t perfect like some Americans, you know the ones we are talking about, all “goodness and light” on the outside and underneath it all, corruption, addiction, a life of failure reinvented by money, power and foreign lobbyists.
America is at war and Pakistan is on the front lines. When you talk about terrorism, Pakistan is the victim, not the US. They get it from every side, American papers, Islamic extremists along with India/Israel, and games some of us can only imagine or talk of in whispers as “conspiracy theory.” When a school is blown up in Pakistan, the list of potential suspects often has some names that would surprise many Americans.
With a world in the hands of folks like Bush or Obama, Gordon Brown or Tony Blair, and the EU folks, Merkel and Sarrdoozie of France, anything with signs of human life and intelligence is always welcome. Italy’s prime minister spends more money on lesbian prostitutes than an American senator can steal in a lifetime. Imran Khan is a saint in comparison.