Before becoming the most popular politician in Pakistan—before the record-size rallies and the odds-on bets that the upcoming elections will make him prime minister—Imran Khan was a political nobody looking for a big favor from Washington.
In January 2008, the onetime cricket superstar turned lackluster politician visited the United States to discuss Pakistan’s future. One of the bloodiest years in memory had just culminated in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto; President Pervez Musharraf, the military leader and an American ally, clung uneasily to power. Elections were approaching, and Khan’s mission was to implore the foreign-policy heavyweights who would meet with him—Senators Joe Biden and John Kerry among them—to keep the U.S. on the sidelines. Validating elections held under Musharraf would be a mistake, he said. American intrusion would only aggravate an already tense situation. “I came to warn them: don’t back [the candidacy of] any individual,” Khan told me in New York City, two days after the meeting, with a hint of desperation in his voice. “Any government that will deal with terrorism has to be credible, and a government that is backed by the Americans will lose all credibility.” Khan was unpersuasive. The Bush administration backed the elections and supported Bhutto’s party, led by her widower, Asif Zardari, who became president.
That Washington had little use for Khan’s advice was not a surprise; at home he was considered a political lightweight, and on Capitol Hill, if he was known at all, it was likely as a carousing cricket champion who starred on the Oxford Blues and then, throughout the 1980s, captained Pakistan’s national team. Christened the “Lion of Pakistan,” he used to prowl London’s West End nightclub circuit with his rugged good looks and flowing mane. Dressed in a sharp suit—or shirtless if the occasion allowed—the playboy was spotted with an endless string of glitzy British socialites. Gossip columns linked him to actresses like Goldie Hawn and Elizabeth Hurley (he later married Jemima Goldsmith, a young heiress to a British fortune). When he beat England in his last match, winning the 1992 World Cup finals, Khan became something of a demigod.
The stunning political success he now enjoys was harder-won—this despite the fact that Khan was courted for office even before he ended his cricket career. More recently, Musharraf offered to install him as prime minister, Khan has claimed. But he had always wanted more than a title. “Going into politics and starting a movement for reform are two different things,” Khan told the British newspaper The Guardian in 1996. That year, he launched the Pakistan Movement for Justice, a political party determined to create, as its founding charter stated, an “Islamic welfare state.” He had by then fashioned a second incarnation as a philanthropist, traveling the country collecting money out of the back of a truck to build a hospital offering free care to poor cancer patients. But while his welfare-minded party repeatedly entered elections, it never won more than one seat in the Pakistani parliament. “Im the dim,” as some in Pakistan called him, was dismissed as politically inept and unelectable. To the liberals worried about his anti-American rhetoric, he was “Taliban without a beard”; religious conservatives abhorred his playboy past and maligned his British wife, whom he divorced in 2004.