Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan, is facing multiple threats of disqualification and arrest. On Aug. 21, the government charged him under the antiterrorism act; he was granted bail until Sept. 1. Meanwhile, he is also set to appear in a contempt of court case on Aug. 31.
He recently invited me over for a cup of tea at his Islamabad residence. I have known Khan for almost 30 years and I was curious to hear how he sees the next stage of his political career. Dressed in casual clothes, he looked fit and alert.
In the course of our conversation, he acknowledged that he had been unable to fulfill many of the promises he made after the 2018 election. He tried to explain the reasons for the failures, which he mainly ascribed to the limitations imposed on his power by members of parliament who weren’t under his control. He denied the fact that he was installed in office with the help of the military establishment. He claimed that the last elections were rigged against him. He said that intelligence agencies supported independent candidates who defeated his party’s candidates: “I formed the government with the help of the same independents who were controlled by the intelligence, and they betrayed me in the end.”
Khan confessed that his government was very weak and said that he relied on the intelligence agencies to get his budgets through parliament. He also said that he was too dependent on his former military intelligence chief, Gen. Faiz Hameed. When Faiz completed his tenure and was transferred to Peshawar, Khan tried to delay the general’s posting. “That was the beginning,” he told me, noting that from this point on his relations with the army were troubled.
He explained other reasons behind his differences with the military. “I wanted good relations with China and I took a hard line against the U.S. — but the military asked me to be polite to the U.S.” Surprisingly, he never blamed the United States for his downfall in the whole conversation. He is now trying to manage his ties with Washington, which means cutting back on talk of foreign conspiracies.
Another reason was his hard stance against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Khan said that the army leadership asked him not to hit Modi below the belt because it might jeopardize back-channel diplomacy. (When I asked the spokesperson of Pakistan Army, Maj. Gen. Babar Iftikhar, about Khan’s claim, he contradicted it, saying that the military had never stopped him from saying anything about Modi.)
During our conversation, Khan made interesting claims about his visit to Moscow in February, just as the invasion of Ukraine was getting under way. He said that he made the trip with the full consent of the military leadership. He had no idea, he said, that the Russians would launch an attack on Ukraine during his visit. He told me about his three-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which included talks about a gas pipeline project. “There are misconceptions about Putin,” he said, “but his wife is Muslim.”
This statement raises a lot of questions. Putin divorced his first wife Lyudmila many years ago. Maybe Khan was talking about Alina Kabaeva, who was born into a half-Muslim family in Uzbekistan. She is widely rumored to be Putin’s girlfriend but there has never been any public indication that the two of them have ever married.
Khan thanked me for taking a stand against the torture of his close aide Shahbaz Gill. I told him that many journalists and activists faced the same kind of torture when he was prime minister. Khan denied this, saying he never ordered anyone to attack or censor journalists. I reminded him that, as prime minister, he was still responsible for the actions of his subordinates, whom he could, at the very least, punish if they committed crimes. Why, for example, was no action taken after the shooting of Absar Alam, one of his most outspoken critics in the press? To my surprise he claimed to be unaware of the incident.
In the end, he said the ultimate solution to the political crises in Pakistan is an early election. He was clearly feeling confident that things might change before November. He assured me that he is more powerful than Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who only rules Islamabad, the capital, while he, Khan, is ruling two big provinces, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He was aware that he might be disqualified in a dispute over campaign finance but told me that he still plans to use his control over those two provincial governments to cripple the federal government in the event that he is arrested. His loyalists are threatening to take over Islamabad.
Khan could indeed win. But he is playing with fire. Pakistan has already experienced the conviction and disqualification of a sitting prime minister and two federal ministers. My encounter with him showed clearly that Khan is taking his situation very lightly. I hope that he will reconsider — for the good of the country.
Pakistan is currently facing a national emergency in the form of floods that have already taken more than 1,000 lives. This is not a good time for political agitation.