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.
But lately, everything has changed. Caught for years in a whirl of guerrilla war and dysfunctional government, huge numbers of Pakistanis are now seizing on Khan’s populist brand of political Islam and his demands for an independent judiciary. In advance of elections expected later this year, he’s suddenly drawing historic crowds. One rally held in Lahore last October brought out more than 100,000 people, shocking Khan’s rivals and helping him convert a slew of new political allies.
Khan’s sudden popularity also owes something to his biting criticism of the United States. As a virulent campaigner against the war in Afghanistan, Khan earned an anti-American badge he now wears with pride, while relations strain over everything from the raid that dispatched Osama bin Laden to November’s errant American air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and sent riotous crowds into the streets. At one point during his massive rally in Lahore, Khan said he had a message for Washington: “We may be your friends, but we will never be your slaves.” The crowd was exhilarated.
But despite the image he enjoys as an anti-American Islamist, Washington doesn’t view Khan as unreasonable. “We know that he opposes some American policies,” an official at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad told me, but “he’s been balanced, and expressed where he would like to see changes.”
Indeed, Khan might be able to offer the U.S. something no one else in Pakistan has: a path out of Afghanistan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently suggested that Pakistan should take a lead in talking with the Taliban. Khan agrees, and as a tribal Pashtun with ancestral roots in South Waziristan, he could be particularly helpful in this sort of dialogue. “It should be the politicians in Pakistan who now should be moving in,” he told me, “not only to deal with our own tribal areas but to help America with a political settlement and exit strategy.”
These days, Khan doesn’t fly to Capitol Hill; Americans are seeking him out. A few weeks after the Lahore rally, a delegation including the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, paid him a visit at his offices in a leafy section of Islamabad. Khan had been anxious to leave for Khanpur, a small town two hours to the northwest, where he was due to speak at a rally. The Americans were making him late. After Khan finally left his guests at the front door, with smiles and handshakes, he flashed a naughty grin. “They couldn’t get enough of me, I guess.”
When Khan arrived at the rally, another enormous throng greeted him. Wide-eyed young men pointed camera phones at him, screaming out his name. Scanning the crowd before taking the stage, Khan surveyed the source of his newfound political power. “If you have the people with you, then you only need Allah,” Khan said, dismissing the old saying that in Pakistani politics, a leader needs two other A’s behind him: America and the army. “We don’t need them,” he said before taking the stage, combing his fingers through his hair. “They may need us. We don’t need them.”