Is Imran Khan Pakistan’s Comeback Kid?

Foreign Policy talked to the former prime minister about the recent attempt on his life, relations with Washington, and how he’d make Pakistan great.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks while taking part in an anti-government march.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks while taking part in an anti-government march.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks while taking part in an anti-government march in Gujranwala, Pakistan, on Nov. 1. ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician and Pakistan’s last prime minister, is the man considered most likely to become Pakistan’s next prime minister.

A populist whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has racked up impressive victories in most of the elections it has contested since he was ousted in a no-confidence vote in April, Khan draws huge crowds as he calls out corruption and the military’s influence in politics. He has a penchant for conspiracy theories, disdains journalists, yet loves smartphones and social media.

Khan is recovering from bullet wounds to his legs sustained in an assassination attempt on Nov. 3 during one of his many mass marches. He has blamed his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, for ordering the shooting. Speaking from his fortified home in Lahore, Khan sat down with Foreign Policy to discuss his legacy and aspirations, his relations with Washington, and how he’d deal with inflation, unemployment, and soaring national debt if he retook power.

Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician and Pakistan’s last prime minister, is the man considered most likely to become Pakistan’s next prime minister.

A populist whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has racked up impressive victories in most of the elections it has contested since he was ousted in a no-confidence vote in April, Khan draws huge crowds as he calls out corruption and the military’s influence in politics. He has a penchant for conspiracy theories, disdains journalists, yet loves smartphones and social media.

Khan is recovering from bullet wounds to his legs sustained in an assassination attempt on Nov. 3 during one of his many mass marches. He has blamed his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, for ordering the shooting. Speaking from his fortified home in Lahore, Khan sat down with Foreign Policy to discuss his legacy and aspirations, his relations with Washington, and how he’d deal with inflation, unemployment, and soaring national debt if he retook power.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: What did you achieve as prime minister between 2018 and 2022? If you win again, how will you deal with double-digit inflation, unemployment, and the debt?

Imran Khan: The economy has tanked in the last seven months, since we have left office. Financial markets have lost their confidence, and a recent Gallup survey showed businesses have lost confidence in the government.

So what will we do next, if I had a chance again? What I’ve been trying to do for 26 years—rule of law. The economy is dependent upon rule of law, which means allowing a level playing field, allowing small and medium industry to prosper. Rule of law and the economy for me are connected. Unfortunately, what I could not do was bring the powerful mafias under the law because my government was too weak. As a coalition government with a fragile majority, we just did not have the power to bring these mafias under control.

Whenever Pakistan’s economic revival will start, it will have to start with establishing rule of law, bringing these mafias, these rent-seekers, these real estate mafias, these sugar mafias, the political mafias, under the law. It’s a problem with the entire developing world. The reason the developing world is poor is not because of lack of resources—it’s because there is no rule of law.

FP: You blamed the United States for cutting short your premiership. And now you’re saying that’s all behind you. Is a normal bilateral relationship possible?

IK: What I’ve always believed in regard to the United States is that we would like to have a dignified relationship with mutual respect, just like the U.S. relationship with India. The United States’ relationship with Pakistan has been transactional. The United States has given us aid in the past, and we have done its bidding at a huge cost. In the “war on terror,” we ended up losing 80,000 Pakistanis in a war we had nothing to do with. I opposed it, of course, throughout. And the country paid a huge cost.

I always said we would like to have a relationship in the future—partners in peace. In a country where there are 120 million vulnerable people—60 million below the poverty line, another 60 million who, with any price shock, will go below the poverty line—my priority would be how do I lift my people out of poverty. And I can’t if there’s a conflict going on like us joining the “war on terror.”

FP: You’ve blamed Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif for the assassination attempt on you. Do you have evidence? Or are you playing the conspiracy card again?

IK: I knew about the plan. I knew when it was hatched. [The political leadership] expected that once I was removed from government, the people would celebrate, and my party would get weaker and probably even break up. Instead, for the first time in our history, people came onto the streets to protest. Even I didn’t expect that. But instead of getting weaker, my party got stronger—75 percent of the by-elections since I was removed have been won by my party, and this is despite the fact that the 11 other parties have contested against us on one ticket. They tried to disqualify me, they put terrorism charges on me, they did everything.

Finally, they came up with the final solution. They made a video of me and accused me of blasphemy. I was told about the plot, that they would bump me off and blame it on a religious fanatic acting alone. There was a full plan: There were two shooters—if one didn’t get me, the other one would. But someone from the crowd, as he saw the gunman just a few feet away from me, pushed his arm down so his three bullets hit my leg. As they hit my leg, I collapsed, and the bullets from the other gun went over my head. So it was a proper assassination attempt.

FP: It is widely said you became prime minister with the support of the Pakistan Army, but you’ve since become a fierce critic of the military’s power. Won’t you need the military to support a comeback? Do you have plans to curtail the Army’s outsized role in the running of the country?

IK: The way the military establishment has evolved is a reality. It is the only organized, intact institution in this country. All other institutions are in shambles. In the developing world, the institutions are weak because when the political elite wants to steal money, they can only do so if the institutions are weak, so it is in their interest to weaken the institutions. In the past 60 years, for half the time Pakistan has been ruled by two crooked families and the other half by the military. By definition, when there is martial law, the institutions weaken.

The Army can work very effectively with the civilian administration if used properly. For instance, when we were dealing with COVID-19, the polio campaign, even the locust plagues, the Army being organized played a huge role in helping my government, and we were very effective. What needs to be done is striking the right balance. Any management system in the world cannot work if it has the responsibility without the authority. In Pakistan, we need that equilibrium, that balance, for us to get proper governance.

The army chief is who decides the policy of the military. I feel that in Pakistan there is a constant reevaluation of how to run the country. There’s a huge debate—probably the hugest form of democracy, everyone has a smartphone and a voice—about finding this equilibrium, about the rule of law, and this is very healthy. It’s the reason my party has gotten so strong. So I think things will change, that there will be a new equilibrium.

FP: China has been a close partner of Pakistan for many years, yet you have not acknowledged the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs, your fellow Muslims, which the United States calls a genocide. Why not?

IK: Giving moral statements on countries, I think it’s a luxury for the rich countries. Poor countries like us cannot afford such statements because it has economic consequences.

I went to Russia to secure cheap oil and because we wanted to buy 2 million tons of wheat we were getting at a discounted rate. One hundred and twenty million Pakistanis are vulnerable. Therefore, when it came to condemning Russian aggression, we abstained, as India abstained—not because we supported the aggression but simply because us giving a statement on the wrong foreign policies and actions of another government has economic consequences on people. That’s the only reason we don’t say things sometimes, because it has consequences on us.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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