When I drove back to Islamabad with Khan, the future prime minister outlined his post-American foreign policy. It was simple enough: no more U.S. military aid, drone attacks, and proxy wars.
Khan believed that the price Pakistan paid to be a “major non-NATO ally” in the War on Terror was too high. Direct lines to the U.S. president, scores of F-16s, and military-aid packages from the Pentagon were not worth what Khan called the “billions and billions of damage.”
Becoming “a frontline state” for the U.S. in Afghanistan, said Khan, “was the worst thing we ever did for our society,” fueling gun violence, heroin addiction, and religious radicalization.
Pakistan, Khan announced, would “no longer be a client state” under his leadership. It “would wean itself off from the aid syndrome” and henceforth “stop fighting other people’s wars,” like the one on the Taliban. “Drone strikes must end,” he said, demanding that the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and cease operations inside it.
The only solution in Afghanistan, he told me, was the one that formally acknowledged the end of American hegemony by bringing Washington’s rivals into the settlement. “Peace in Afghanistan will not come,” said Khan, “unless all the neighbors—Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States—sit down at a table and come up with a negotiated settlement.”
I’d heard that Khan’s most fervent new supporters were the poor and working class of Karachi, but had a hard time understanding what they saw in an Oxford-educated friend of Mick Jagger. So I joined the local Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Ali Zaidi on a tour of the slums: miles upon miles of tottering concrete homes cut through with rivers of raw sewage, an enormous recruiting ground for low-wage labor.
Each time the car reached a party outpost, the local activists switched on “the Imran Khan song” before Zaidi, now one of Khan’s ministers, promised a “Naya Pakistan”—a new Pakistan. When I asked Khan’s future voters what place the “Naya Pakistan” would most resemble, the answers were remarkably consistent: Dubai, or Riyadh, or Abu Dhabi. The cities glittering in their minds over the water. They had family, brothers, cousins, and sons working in “Saudia,” these supporters proudly told me, sometimes pointing to their Facebook messages and WhatsApps on their phones, as if I would not otherwise believe them.
“He’s selling Pakistanis a dream,” said Umar, the finance minister, in the cool of his home in the elite neighborhood of Defense. “But he’s not a con man.” Khan, to him, was not an ideologue or a populist, but a genius at what Umar called “PR.”
That dream, quite clearly, is that Pakistan can join rising Asia—that it will come to resemble Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, where many Pakistanis have worked, and from which they receive remittances. Seen from the slums of Karachi, “Saudia” is not a synonym for backwardness.