Imran Khan speaks in Urdu to his Pakistani-American audience.
When it comes to Pakistani politicians, this makes him a rarity—he's the first in a generation to do so. Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto, and Asif Ali Zardari all turned to English when they were abroad, even with Urdu-speaking audiences. Bhutto was famously terrible at speaking her country's national language.
And it's right there, in those Urdu words that Khan speaks, that the difference is most apparent between him and any Pakistani politician who came before him in recent memory. After the introductions are over at the San Francisco Bay Area fundraiser for Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaaf (PTI), the party—its name translates to "Movement for Justice"—that the cricket champion founded nearly 20 years ago, Khan rises from his seat to take the podium. Though exhausted from a tight schedule of travel and appearances, the audience ignites the always-simmering fire in Khan. He is energized by talk of Pakistan's future.
He begins with a reference to "the country that will be the next California of Asia," then calls the overseas Pakistanis "our biggest asset" among the 10 million members of the party. The crowd cheers.
"People get depressed about Pakistan," Khan tells the audience, "I say it's the French Revolution! Optimism! Phenomenal change! Best of times, worst of times!” When I ask him later what he meant by that, Khan says, "Very rarely do you see a country on the edge where it can change its destiny—where you move from the stagnant, corrupt society to a vibrant country with a future."
"If we can get this right, we hope to have a new Pakistan, a completely different country from what it is now.”
Khan has no doubt that after his country's upcoming election—expected to be held in 2013—his party will finally have a presence in the Pakistani government. "I don't think anyone is going to be able to stop Tehreek-e Insaaf from winning," he tells me. But his detractors—particularly the main political parties in Pakistan-—say Khan doesn't represent much of a change from what they already offer. They point to a large number of their own former party leaders who have joined PTI since the beginning of the year, some of whom do not share Khan's good reputation, and whose arrival has prompted some longstanding PTI members to leave the party.
Khan, however, is unconcerned. "Political parties are living organisms, where they keep evolving, and accordingly you have people joining them or leaving them," he tells me. "The party would only do badly if it moves away from its agenda of change."
And the party's agenda is remarkably clear. PTI believes in a strong and independent judiciary. It has been a close supporter of the current, controversial Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who has riled the establishment by—among other things—sacking Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and has shocked some members of the U.S. government who aren't accustomed to being publicly questioned for breaking a few rules here and there in Pakistan.
Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of PTI's agenda is to create the first democratic party in Pakistan. Khan says the plan is to have "the first democratic internal elections for any political party" in Pakistan's history. He deems it his "dream of a democratic party, unlike the family parties that exist." He is referring to two of the biggest political parties: the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) which was started by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s—and decades later remains in the hands of the Bhutto family via Benazir's widower Zardari—and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which was founded and is still run by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother.
Symbolically, Khan is similar to Barack Obama circa 2008—when he says he will bring change, the nation tends to believe him. When I ask Khan which U.S. presidential candidate he thinks would be better for Pakistan, he hesitates at first, then repeats his disappointment in Obama's continuation of the "senseless war on terror," and finally concedes that "Obama's instincts are basically right."
Khan, like many Obama voters, believes there is something positive in Obama that hasn't had a chance to emerge yet. "Let's hope if he wins the second term, we see a different Obama," he says. "We want a U.S. president who, for a change, gives peace a chance," he says.
But for Khan, the real issue at stake isn't just about the 2014 exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but also an end to the use of remote-controlled drone warfare. His national rally against drones in early October led him and thousands of his supporters to the edge of the drone-hit areas in Pakistan.
The rally was so successful in drawing international attention that it was the main topic of concern for U.S. Customs officials during Khan's fundraising trip in North America. Khan tells me that after he had already been cleared to board his plane from Toronto to New York, he was pulled off his flight and questioned about whether he planned to lead an anti-drones protest in front of the United Nations. The State Department later declared that Khan was "welcome" in the United States but the tension was obvious.
In fact, Khan's relationship with the U.S. may be the biggest question of all when it comes to his own political aspirations and his party's future. Unlike the current leadership in Pakistan, and many before it, Khan's party is not associated with American support. Since at least the 1960s, when General Ayoub Khan ruled over Pakistan as an American ally, there has been no Pakistani leader who made it to the top and stayed there without an explicit alliance with the United States.
Obama may not have forged the kind of public display of friendship with Zardari that George W. Bush did with former president Gen. Pervez Musharraf, but the alliance still stands and was most evident during the Osama bin Laden raid, something many observers believe could not have taken place without Pakistani government cooperation.
And government cooperation is a sensitive issue: the U.S. needs Pakistan to cooperate on its military activity in the region. Today, with U.S. officials calling al Qaeda a reduced threat, the big enemy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region is the Taliban. With most U.S. drones targeting the border areas, Khan’s defiance on drone strikes makes America look bad, and the American establishment has caught on.
The suspicion over Khan was exemplified most recently when 15-year-old activist Malala Yousafzai was shot by a member of the Taliban, just days after Khan’s rally, as she was riding home on a school bus. Some Western media outlets and their counterparts in Pakistan used Malala’s shooting to trot out the old “Taliban Khan” moniker, suggesting that Khan didn’t do enough to air his support for Malala in the aftermath of the attack.
Khan isn't pleased about the accusation. “This is all propaganda,” he says. “Condemning is not a solution [but] I am the only political leader who went to Peshawar to see Malala and condemn the Taliban.”
Indeed, President Zardari didn't make the trip, nor did the leaders of any other major national party. Khan was the only major politician to visit the child and her family after the shooting in Peshawar—the capital of the province where most of the country’s drone attacks and suicide bombings have occurred in the last few years, and a place where few ordinary Pakistanis dare travel, let alone high-profile ones.
Even as the West has blasted Khan for cozying up to the Taliban, the Taliban leadership itself has derided the politician as a “slave of the West” and slammed his anti-drones rally as a spectacle “not to show solidarity with victims of drone strikes, but to further his own political ends.”
Still, Khan retains significant support in the tribal regions where the Taliban operates by walking the middle path with the extremist group: he has publicly supported their fight against the U.S., while opposing Taliban policies that conflict with human rights.
To many American politicians, this approach to the Taliban is unacceptable. For Khan, the Toronto incident has reinforced the sense that the U.S. government does not see him as an ally. When I ask him how he feels about that, he is defiant. “I think the people of Pakistan, generally, whether they are in my party or not, found it very offensive that such a treatment should be meted out to someone who’s well known in the country. Imagine how the people in the U.S. would feel if the head of a political party went to Pakistan and got this sort of treatment.” There are no doubt many in Washington who are concerned about exactly that scenario.
Khan may have a soft spot for Obama but he hasn’t shown signs of succumbing to any delusions about America's presence in his homeland. The question remains whether he can win a sizable presence in Parliament—and perhaps even the post of prime minister—against the biggest odds of all: little to no U.S. support.
Imran Khan seems to be quite confident that he can.