Khan talks like the man who would be king—not like someone who has spent the last 17 years waging a lonely candidacy. Everything changed in October 2011, when he shocked observers by staging the largest political rally Pakistan had seen in years. If he manages to become prime minister after next year’s elections, he’ll be the country’s first top leader since 1971 who is not a member of the Bhutto-Zardari family, a military dictator, or Nawaz Sharif. “Unless we do something stupid, we will win the election,” he says confidently, bobbing and weaving through traffic. “God willing, we will sweep it!”
From the backseat comes a small roar of approval. Khan’s sons, 15-year-old Sulaiman and 12-year-old Kasim, are visiting from London, where they live with their mother, the British heiress Jemima Khan (née Goldsmith). Thanks to Khan’s family life and cavorting history, the idea that he wanted to become a serious political player—despite the halo he had acquired from his philanthropic work—seemed laughable when he started in 1996. His testosterone-charged exploits on the London social scene throughout the 1980s and early ’90s were infamous. Romantically tied to Goldie Hawn, among many others, he was also a close friend of Mick Jagger’s and Princess Diana’s.
“He obviously had this great playboy reputation, and he was gorgeous,” says a former girlfriend, adding, “When you’re with him, he’s very much with you.” (She says that during “intimate moments” he “growled like a tiger.”) News that a recent column in The Atlantic about him was titled “The Playboy” brings another outburst from the backseat. “That’s because I used to play cricket,” Khan offers his boys. But he can’t suppress a red-blooded boast about his old single life. “Don’t forget, I was the No. 1 cricketer in the world at the time!”
Khan’s blunt confidence served him well as Pakistan’s cricket captain, but it can be jarring in his current iteration as a front-running politician. He is a famously aggressive man. On the cricket pitch, where he willed Pakistan to its first and only World Cup win, in 1992, his inswinger was the stuff of legend. But over the years he’s tried to cultivate an image of being a born-again Muslim who has moved beyond his sinful past. As if it were an easy win in a cricket match, Khan says his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf would fix some of the country’s toughest problems in just 90 days. But his strategy for dealing with the Taliban and other Islamist militants has led to charges that he is soft on extremists.
During ‘intimate moments’ Khan ‘growled like a tiger,’ says an ex-girlfriend.
His plan is to order the Army to withdraw from the unruly tribal areas and start a dialogue with the militants—something his erstwhile friend, former president Pervez Musharraf had tried and failed at. Beyond ending the fighting in the tribal belt, his campaign is built on the twin promises of battling corruption and standing up to the American administration. This has meant that the worse things get in his country, and the further AmPak relations deteriorate, the better become his political prospects.
“The disenchantment with the other political parties is so acute. That’s the space that has been carved out for Imran Khan,” says Jugnu Mohsin, publisher of The Friday Times, an independent weekly based in Lahore, and a frequent Khan critic. When asked what kind of prime minister he would make, her response is visceral. “I shudder to think, because he is a man who doesn’t really have a firm grip on history, or politics, or the economy,” she says. “He would be very easily led and misled … And I think the military would probably continue to call the shots.”
Khan’s campaign is flush with cash, funded by Pakistani businessmen and supported by the middle class and the young, along with many rightwing voters “who choose not to vote for a religious party, but want more or less the same policies,” according to Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an analyst based in Lahore. Mohsin and other observers have also suggested that Khan is secretly being propped up by the military and the ISI. Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief, says that although some in the security forces may have sympathy for Khan, he doesn’t think that Khan takes his cues from them. “The Army has deliberately decided over the last four and half years to pull back from the real politics in Pakistan,” he says. “Many individuals might support him, but that’s individuals.”
Khan himself denies any clandestine connections, but says that “the Army would love to have me bail it out” by backing away from America and stopping the fight against militants inside Pakistan. He says critics accusing him of being the establishment’s Manchurian Candidate are simply trying to explain away what he terms his “tsunami” of popular support.
From the start, Khan has been critical of the war in Afghanistan and the U.S.-Pakistani military efforts along the international border with Afghanistan—a sentiment that seems to grow more popular inside Pakistan by the day. “What have you achieved in the years here fighting a war? Forty thousand people are dead here. The country is more radicalized and polarized than ever in our history,” he says.
‘I guess they call me anti-American because slaves are not supposed to disagree with the policies of their masters.’
But Khan also denies charges that he’s anti-American. “I guess they call me anti-American because slaves are not supposed to disagree with the policies of their masters.” To him America’s AfPak policy conforms to “Einstein’s definition of madness: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” He says: “The Pakistan Army is killing its own people. It’s the most shameful period in our history. We created militants through collateral damage, and we are creating more militants through collateral damage. The ruling elite have sold their souls for dollars.”
In terms of the American president, Khan is dismissive. “Obama was never really someone who was going to bring any radical change,” he says. “He was intelligent enough, but just didn’t have the strength to take those big decisions, which we were all hoping he would.” He believes Obama has been “worse than Bush.” Despite his feelings about the American president, Khan’s campaign has certain echoes of the Obama campaign. “I AM the change,” reads Sulaiman’s T shirt under his father’s picture.
Pakistan’s youth, almost a third of all registered voters, are sick of the status quo: the military’s grip on power, tired political dynasties, and a lack of economic opportunity. Khan’s campaign appeals to this young segment of the electorate, many of whom are expected to be first-time voters on May 11. Khan is clearly the most popular of the candidates among these voters. But Pakistan’s parliamentary system requires the other candidates from his party to win broadly across the country. So Khan has scrambled to build up a coherent party to match his own popularity. The results have been mixed.
“He says, ‘I want to get everyone under the tent.’ But then what do you stand for? He sees himself as a unifier. He doesn’t want to do things that alienate anyone. That’s nice. But you can’t be all things to all men, because you end up not being anything to anyone,” says Maleeha Lodhi, former ambassador to the U.S. and Britain and an influential supporter and confidante.
Corruption, a weak economy, a sense of hopelessness, and a deepening divide in Pakistan may make this Khan’s moment as people look for change. But even Gul, the former spy chief and an early mentor for Khan, is unconvinced by his political program. “What change is he going to bring? He has been focusing his attention only on corruption. But there are more structural changes required in Pakistan. I don’t think he has given much time to it.”
That day on the road to Islamabad, Khan pulled over at a roadside eatery for a quick bite. He sat like a king as 50 excited locals pressed around him. Big bowls of chicken and mutton were placed on tables before him and his entourage. While his aides ate with forks, Khan dug his big fingers right into the bowls. But once the meal was over, the mood among the locals went from celebratory to chaotic as they shouted, all at once, their complaints. “We need a hospital!” one man shouted. “Give us schools!” roared another. Khan seemed at times exasperated, putting up his hands. “When the PTI is in power, I will take care of these problems for you,” he finally said. Then he got back into his Land Cruiser and sped away.
Given the scale of Pakistan’s many problems, Khan’s plans for dealing with economic mismanagement and endemic corruption—such as devolving power to local governments—may strike some as improbable or simply naive.
His ex-wife, Jemima, says Khan is as confounding as the country he hopes to lead. “He has all sorts of bits in him—a bit like Pakistan,” she told Newsweek. “He’s very complicated and conflicted.” A golden-haired 21-year-old “it” girl when they married in 1995 (and who remains a tabloid fixture often seen in the company of people such as Hugh Grant and Kate Moss), Jemima learned Urdu, championed Pakistani causes, and lived with Imran in what Vanity Fair described in a hyperbolic flourish as a cramped place in Lahore with “grimy sofas.”
‘He’s very complicated and conflicted,’ says Jemima of her ex-husband. ‘A bit like Pakistan.’
Khan had given away most of his money to charity by the time the two married, according to Jemima, and soon after their marriage, he threw himself into his political career, which often kept him away from the family. It was a considerable sacrifice for the family, she says—and with Khan enjoying little success, she often wondered how long he would carry on. After the couple split, Khan admitted that his “political life made it difficult for [Jemima] to adapt to life in Pakistan.” The marriage itself was used by rivals to damage Khan politically. “There was a lot of time spent apart, and more importantly, there was just an endless sense of being a kind of terrible Achilles’ heel, because every time there was an election campaign, there’d be something else about me that would be used to discredit him,” says Jemima.
In addition to the smears, there were death threats. People would even call to tell her that her husband was dead. “It used to happen all the time,” she says, “And that’s really living on the edge, because he didn’t even carry a mobile phone in those days. That was sort of three hours of waiting to see if you’re a widow and your children are fatherless. It was tense. He used to go for walks with his dogs with a big gun on his waist.” When asked about Khan becoming prime minister, Jemima says: “I’m conflicted because, on the one hand, I don’t want my children’s father to put himself into a position that’s very dangerous … But at the same time, part of me wants him to be successful, not just for him and for Pakistan, but also because it makes sense of some of the really big sacrifices that he did make, and one of those was his family life. You know, if he’s not successful, there’s a point at which you ask, ‘What were all those sacrifices for?’”
By the time of his marriage, Khan had already reinvented himself—he calls it an “evolution”—as a devout Muslim, and today his politics have become so religious that some critics call him a “Taliban without a beard.” (During a recent spat, Salman Rushdie described him as “a better-looking Gaddafi.”) But in Pakistan, some among the extreme-right remain suspicious of him. Mullah Malang, a Taliban commander in the tribal areas, describes him as one of the “usual U.S. puppet politicians of Pakistan.” “His track record is full of sins and scandals,” the commander says. “If he was a good Pakistani and practicing Muslim, he wouldn’t have married an English Jewish girl.” Jemima, who is not Jewish, says Khan’s religious beliefs are genuine.
Khan’s confidence in his political prospects, both for getting into office and fixing things once he does, seems based mainly on an innate belief in his own self: if he wills it, it will come to pass. Namal University embodies this mindset. The domed, stately-looking building jammed into the unforgiving stone mountains in Mianwali, where his father hailed from, sits in a basin dynamited into the rock. A decade ago, Khan had the idea for an improbable Oxford-like university town here. Today he has this building and diagrammed plans for what will occupy the rest of the sprawling grounds. A big faded billboard of Khan stands outside the entrance to the university, which will graduate its first class next month.
The former cricketer still has his lean good looks and trademark feathered haircut, though there are hints of gray on the tips of his sideburns and a just-visible bald spot on the back of his head. But as he walks around the campus, students clamor to get close to him. Their cellphones held up high to snap pictures of the old hero. Finally, Khan marches out into the rocky hills to survey the site. He stomps through the dust in his wrinkled shalwar kameez, people from his entourage slipping on rocks, before stopping on a hill as an assistant struggles to open a map against the wind. “This is very high,” says Khan. “The library could go here.” All around him there was just desolate rock.
With additional reporting by Jahanzeb Aslam, Sami Yousafzai, Nazar Ul Islam, and Benazir Shah. From our April 13‚ 2012, issue.