ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Imran Khan, the former cricket star turned politician and would-be leader of Pakistan, would like to say, “I told you so.”
He told the Americans not to invade Iraq — “Now look at it,” he said. He campaigned against their invasion of Afghanistan — “All that trillion dollars down the drain and what has it achieved?” He was so ardent in his opposition to Pakistan’s former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, for supporting the American-led war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, that General Musharraf derided him as “a terrorist without a beard.”
“They even called me Taliban Khan,” he said, chuckling, during an interview in his home atop a hill overlooking the capital.
Now that Pakistan’s internal insurgencies have gone unusually quiet over the past year, Mr. Khan insists it is yet more proof that the last laugh is his.
“When the Americans were pushing Pakistan to do more,” he said, “the country was heading toward a frenzy of fanaticism. But now the fanaticism has gone out of it, because the Americans have left Afghanistan mostly, and it’s no longer seen as Pakistan fighting the American war.”
A lot of that has to do with the Pakistan Army’s determined crackdown on militants in the wake of last December’s massacre of 145 students and teachers at an army school in Peshawar, he conceded. But still, without the Americans to blame, “it’s no longer jihad, it’s seen as killing your own people.”
Imran Khan’s populist style has played well in a country where anti-Americanism has always been a big vote-getter. He rode that sentiment, as well as his fame as a cricket hall of famer, into politics, but his party — Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, known as P.T.I. — languished for years as a relatively minor force.
Then, in the 2013 elections, his party for the first time won control of a provincial government, taking over in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. As the country’s main two parties settled into what amounted to a comfortable alliance, Mr. Khan found his party viewed as the leading opposition force in Pakistan.
Mr. Khan’s party, built on a platform of fighting corruption, promised unprecedented change in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa: devolving power to villages and communities through local elections, depoliticizing the police — “one of our own ministers was handcuffed by police, this never happened before,” Mr. Khan said — and even announcing a reforestation program he called “the billion-tree tsunami.”
The good will his party gained was helped in no small measure by his own celebrity and his rugged good looks, still appearing much younger than his 63 years. But he also had intellectual credibility as an Oxford graduate and the former chancellor of a British university, and was admired as a philanthropist at home.
Although Mr. Khan had earlier accepted the results of the 2013 national elections, he insisted that the party had been cheated out of even bigger gains. Last year, he decided to aggressively dispute the vote, and when the courts did not agree, he took to staging sit-ins and marches that blocked Parliament for months, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government.
Mr. Khan’s critics saw his street protests as a bid for power, hoping to get Pakistan’s powerful military to step in as it had done many times before and oust Mr. Sharif, paving the way for Mr. Khan to take over. He denied that, but when he invoked a cricketing term that a “third umpire” would resolve the dispute, many saw that as a call for military intervention. (He later explained that he was referring to God.) In the end, the military stayed out of it, and Mr. Khan’s street movement fizzled.
“Last year, he did appear to be the main opposition and a credible one,” said Najam Aziz Sethi, a prominent journalist who once led the Pakistan cricket association. “But in the past year, he has lost a lot of ground politically.”
Even some of his critics have been concerned about his failing political fortunes.
“We should all pray for Imran Khan’s speedy political recovery,” said Syed Talat Hussain. “The man is still central to the future of his party, which in turn is key to keeping Pakistan’s fledgling democracy on track.”
The tabloid-friendly side of his life was also acting up, to his detriment at times.
During the street protests, the Pakistani and British tabloids ran wild with rumors of his romantic involvement with a Pakistani television personality, Reham Nayyar, 42. At the time, he denied the rumors. But in January, Mr. Khan announced that he had married Ms. Nayyar, the second marriage for each.
While the wedding enthused many of his supporters — romantic liaisons outside marriage do not sit well in religiously conservative Pakistan — the timing of the announcement caused some concern. It came weeks after the Peshawar army school massacre, when the country was still in mourning and shock, and many criticized Mr. Khan’s poor judgment.
Just 10 months later, in late October, the couple announced their intention to divorce. The Daily Mail weighed in immediately, saying Mr. Khan had invoked the Islamic style of divorce by texting to his wife the Arabic word talaq — meaning “I divorce you” — three times, which she saw as she disembarked from a flight to London.
Mr. Khan has refused to discuss his divorce, but his aides said that the tabloid account was untrue, and that the parting was amicable.
Politically it did him little good, however, giving fuel to critics who had already begun calling him U-Turn Khan instead of Taliban Khan.
“Now the divorce, 10 months down the line, just shows immaturity, impulsiveness, lack of judgment,” Mr. Sethi said. “It undermines his argument that he’s the most popular man in the country.”
Despite some setbacks, however, Mr. Khan has a basis for his claim. He boasted during the interview about a recent poll by a think tank, S.D.P.I., showing his P.T.I. party leading the country with 32 percent popularity, ahead of the prime minister’s Muslim League party with 27 percent. The old Pakistan People’s Party of the Bhutto dynasty and former President Asif Ali Zardari had sunk to third with only 14 percent. (The same poll found that Pakistanis view the United States as one of the country’s least reliable allies, despite more than a billion dollars in annual civilian and military aid.)
“We are poised,” Mr. Khan said. “When you have a two-party system like we had, it is rare to break in and become the second-biggest party, and then to bring in all these new people.”
Still, he admits the parliamentary protests sapped a lot of his party’s energy. And others say it also drained its financial resources, as the party had to feed and care for the thousands of round-the-clock protesters.
“It meant we couldn’t concentrate on governing Khyber-Pakhtunkwah, and on organizing ourselves. Now we need to become so organized that we can take on the established party,” Mr. Khan said, adding that with two years until the next national elections, there was still plenty of time.
In the meantime, Mr. Khan objects to the view that he stokes anti-American feelings merely for political gain. He insists that the United States has been its own worst enemy in Pakistan.
“I always said that the moment the American footprint in Afghanistan came down, so would the anti-Americanism,” he said. “It was all the killing of civilians — the drones and killing — that made anti-Americanism go up. Especially drones. I can’t understand what human being can sit thousands of miles away and kill people, women and children, here.
“I used to interact with the Americans, and they said, ‘Anyone who is not going along with you is anti-American.’ That’s wrong, I said — anyone who is going along with you is anti-American, because what you’re doing is fanning hatred against the Americans.”
Courtesy New York Times