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Pakistani Opposition Leader Imran Khan on Musharraf, Bhutto and How the US Has Undermined Pakistani Democracy

StoryJanuary 30, 2008
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On a visit to the US, legendary cricket star turned politician Imran Khan discusses the challenges he faces opposing the US-backed military government of President Pervez Musharraf. Khan is boycotting the upcoming elections and calling for an end to military action in the embattled border regions of Pakistan. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A missile strike Tuesday killed twelve people in the Pakistani village forty miles east of the Afghanistan border. Residents told the Associated Press the strike might have been carried out by an armed US drone flying over Afghanistan. US, Pakistani and Afghan officials have denied knowledge of the attack. Close to 100,000 Pakistani troops are currently engaged in heavy military action in the federally administered tribal areas in the North-West Frontier Province along the Afghan border.

This latest attack comes in the wake of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s refusal to allow the Bush administration to unilaterally expand its military and intelligence presence in this area. The New York Times revealed two top US intelligence officials made a secret visit to Pakistan earlier this month to urge Musharraf to act against al-Qaeda and remind him that “time is ticking away.” Their unannounced trip came in the wake of growing intelligence reports on the rising influence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the State Department point person for South Asia, Richard Boucher, said he expects “some fraud” and a “certain level of interference” in the February 18th elections in Pakistan. Assistant Secretary of State Boucher was speaking at a congressional hearing Tuesday.

Legendary cricket star turned politician, Imran Khan, is a Pakistani opposition figure who is boycotting the upcoming elections and calling for an end to military action in the embattled border regions of Pakistan. This staunch critic of Musharraf is the founder and chair of the Movement for Justice Party, known in Pakistan as Tehreek-e-Insaaf.

I sat down with Imran Khan on Sunday here in New York. After he had just been in Washington visiting congressional leaders, I asked him why he was here.

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, basically, the Pakistani American community here, they invited me here to explain the other point of view. There’s a government point of view, Musharraf government’s point of view, and then there’s the other point of view. And they wanted me to explain it to the US lawmakers to make them understand two things. One is that they should not back one man, a dictator, against the forces of democracy in Pakistan; and secondly, that a new strategy is needed in this war on terror, because at the moment, terrorism is spreading with leaps and bounds. And unless we have a new strategy, the existence of Pakistan is at stake.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why is the United States relevant to that?

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, for two reasons: one, that the US is involved in Afghanistan; and secondly, the US feels that Musharraf is their best bet, the US administration. They feel that he’s their best bet in fighting terrorism.

    AMY GOODMAN: Your feeling about that?

    IMRAN KHAN: I think it’s the biggest mistake. It’s the biggest blunder US is committing, because you can only win the war on terror if you mobilize the people and exclude the terrorists. A famous saying of Chairman Mao, that a terrorist should be a fish out of water rather than fish in water. In other words, if people from whom the terrorists are operating from, if they start considering them as freedom fighters, the war is going to be lost. They should be — the hearts and minds of those people should be won, so they too should consider them terrorists. So that’s the basic premise. And at the moment, unfortunately, the battle for hearts and minds is being lost, and the terrorists of 9/11 are gaining ground, because people are joining them, the way the war is being fought.

    AMY GOODMAN: Who do you see are the terrorists, Imran Khan?

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, the terrorists really were the al-Qaeda. Taliban were just religious fundamentalists. They were not terrorists. And they inherited Osama bin Laden. I mean, al-Qaeda was already in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. The best strategy should have been, was to isolate al-Qaeda. But by attacking the Taliban, of course, and then backing a minority, which was the Northern Alliance, and making them take over Afghanistan and pushing the Taliban — not just did they push the Taliban towards al-Qaeda, but the Pushtuns, who basically Taliban were Pushtuns, the Pushtuns were also being pushed in that direction. So what should have been a war against al-Qaeda has now — is evolving into a war against the Pustuns. If it’s a war against the Pushtuns, then I’m afraid it’s a never-ending war, because, you know, there are millions of Pustuns, both sides of the border, Pakistan and Afghanistan. And unless a strategy — a change of strategy takes place, I’m afraid not only is the US stuck in a quagmire, but in Pakistan, as I said, the country itself is going to be destabilized — is being destabilized.

    AMY GOODMAN: The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the day it happened, where were you?

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, that day, I had gone to India to attend a wedding. And as I landed in India — and it was only for a day — as I landed there, I found out that she had been assassinated.

    AMY GOODMAN: You knew her well.

    IMRAN KHAN: We went to university together, and we were friends until she became the prime minister.

    AMY GOODMAN: Where in university?

    IMRAN KHAN: At Oxford University in England. And so, you know, it was a huge shock, not just to me, I mean the whole country. I’ve never seen such grief in the country.

    AMY GOODMAN: Her significance? And what was your assessment of her role in Pakistan, prime minister twice?

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, very significant, because she represented one of the two major parties in Pakistan. I did not agree with her politics, because I felt that she wanted US backing to get into power in Pakistan, and the US did back her. And then she was prepared to do a power-sharing deal with the military dictator, who’s Musharraf, and a US-brokered power deal, where she would share power with a military dictator and abandon people like us who were fighting for democracy in Pakistan. So I did not agree with her tactics.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why was the US involved with that? Why did she work with the US?

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, US was involved with her, because they felt that she was a moderate or liberal political force which would back Musharraf, who was their man to fight terrorism. And she needed the US, and she needed Musharraf. The reason, in my opinion and in fact opinion of most people in Pakistan, she needed them because she was stuck in corruption cases, Switzerland and in Spain, and she needed Musharraf to be on her side so that the Pakistan government would not pursue these corruption cases.

    AMY GOODMAN: Who do you think killed Benazir Bhutto?

    IMRAN KHAN: Very difficult to say. It could have been any of the various groups that are now fighting the Pakistan army. And Benazir Bhutto had specifically stated that she would fight against al-Qaeda, against Taliban, against the fundamentalists. So, clearly, all those groups — and this is not one group now, there are various groups now, which is why I think that the way the war on terrorism is being fought is actually creating more terrorists. So there are various groups now, and so all of them would have been gunning for her. And secondly, it could also have been the stakeholders, people who have been in power for five years who were threatened by her. And that’s why an independent inquiry is needed.

    AMY GOODMAN: Meaning Musharraf?

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, Musharraf and the political forces supporting Musharraf.

    AMY GOODMAN: At that time of the assassination, it has now come out that the United States quietly approved $500 million worth of fighter jets to go to Pakistan, Lockheed Martin jets. What do you think of that?

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, look, there are two different — well, one, the reason why the US is supporting the Pakistan army is because the Pakistan army is now the frontline army in fighting not just Taliban, but the people of the tribal area who now are moving towards the Taliban, because the Pakistan army went into the tribal area and used the tactics which have alienated the people, like bombing from helicopter gun ships, fighter jets bombing villages, women and children dying. And so, the whole tribes are now turning against the Pakistan army. So, as I said, the way the war on terror is being fought, it’s pushing more people on the other side. So, the US is supporting the Pakistan army, because it’s basically started off fighting the US war on terror. And so, when it’s supplying it equipment, it’s supplying it equipment because it thinks it’s doing the job which — if the Pakistan army wasn’t doing it, the US army would have to do it.

    AMY GOODMAN: In fact, the US has talked about expanding a US presence in Pakistan, but most recently announcing plans to expand military training and equipment to Pakistan in a $2 billion package over the next five years that would seek to boost Pakistan’s intelligence service, its air and ground power.

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, at the moment, and not many people in the US know, that the Pakistan army has lost more soldiers than the US army in Iraq and Afghanistan put together. The sort of casualties the Pakistani army is taking is unsustainable. In my opinion, it’s not long before there’s some unrest within the army. Already, there are stories about soldiers refusing to fight. And so, you know, an army fighting its own people, not the terrorists of 9/11, its own people now, this is what it’s become, because the tribal area — when the Pakistan army went into the tribal area, it broke the treaty with the people of tribal area, which was signed in 1948, that the Pakistan army would not go there. So by going in there, they are now virtually fighting the people in tribal area, fighting their own people, and they’re sustaining heavy casualties.

    AMY GOODMAN: Who is the army, the Pakistan army? Who are the soldiers? Where do they come from?

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, they are mainly Pushtuns, which are from the North-West Frontier Province, and the Punjabis, which come from the Punjab Province. Actually, the Punjabis are the predominant force, and the Pushtuns are the second. In numbers, they would be the second-highest numbers there.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you see US military aid shoring up Musharraf?

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, the US are propping up Musharraf. And that’s why I came here, trying to make them understand that this is a tried and failed policy.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the US should cut off aid to Pakistan under Musharraf?

    IMRAN KHAN: US should back the people of Pakistan. Whenever — if ever this war is going to be won, it will be won by mobilizing the people of the country. And you back the people by backing the democratic process, not a military dictator. And you back the democratic process right now in Pakistan by insisting free and fair elections with the reinstatement of the judges sacked by General Musharraf. 60 percent of our judges have been sacked by him. We want them reinstated and, under them, free and fair elections. Whichever government comes into power, a genuine democratic government, it will be the best bet for US to work with that to fight terrorism.

    AMY GOODMAN: You’re boycotting the February 18th elections; why?

    IMRAN KHAN: Because how can you fight elections when your Supreme Court chief justice is under house arrest? 60 percent of the Superior Court judges have been sacked. And Musharraf has got his own judges, his own election commission, his own administration, his own caretaker government. How can you have free and fair elections under this situation?

    AMY GOODMAN: Other opposition parties are going forward. For example, Nawaz Sharif, who had originally said he was going to boycott earlier elections, is participating in this.

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, more or less, all political parties had boycotted the elections after November 3 emergency, when Musharraf sacked 60 percent of our judiciary. Unfortunately, Benazir decided to fight the elections, the People’s Party. And when she decided to fight the elections -–

    AMY GOODMAN: You mean to participate in them?

    IMRAN KHAN: She participated in the elections. And this was under the American US administration pressure, and this was really to save Musharraf. If she had also boycotted the elections, that was the end of Musharraf. But she actually gave him a lifeline by deciding to participate. And then others followed in, because they felt that they would be left out.

AMY GOODMAN: Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan. We’ll come back to this interview in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to my conversation with Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan. He was arrested by Musharraf last year. I asked him why he moved from being a cricket star to a politician. He could well be prime minister or president of Pakistan one day. This was Imran Khan’s response.

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, simply because I discovered that in our country there’s a tiny elite who has usurped the resources of the whole country. The whole country panders to this tiny elite. By the way, I belong to them. And the rich are getting richer. And the vast majority of people don’t even have basic rights. And so, I felt that the way to fight for rights is — and that’s why we were called Movement for Justice — we felt that we have to have an independent justice system. Only when you have an independent justice system is there a check and balance on the executive, because what is happening is, the elite has basically captured the government. Whether it’s one party or the other, basically the interests are the same. And so, they come into government, and they plunder the country. They usurp the resources. And so, common people are deprived of all the basic needs: health, education, water, housing, justice. And the only way we can check this elite and have even free and fair elections, even have prosperity, if our justice system is independent. So that’s what my movement was eleven years ago.

    AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been in this country for a few days now. What do you think of the US media here and its portrayal of Pakistan, your country?

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, unfortunately, you know, they do not have — this whole war on complex — on terrorism is extremely complex. This — what they call terrorism and all the people they think are terrorists, not all of them have anything to do with al-Qaeda or even Taliban. And here, people seem to think that there is one man who is fighting this war on terror, and so they should support one man. And if he went, the country would implode, and the Pakistan nukes would fall in the hands of the extremists. And so, this sort of a fear is prevailing in the US, actually not understanding the ground realities of the country.

    The realities are, whenever we’ve had elections, even religious parties, not all of them are extreme, all of them have been marginalized. People always vote for centrist parties in Pakistan. So people are politically very aware. They don’t buy this whole thing about people trying to use religion to come into power. So, you know, even our elite underestimates the population of Pakistan.

    And secondly, the different strands of terrorism, all of them have different origins and they have different solutions. You cannot all put them in one basket. If you do that, the danger is they morph into one movement, so that you all then have a common enemy. So it has to be dealt very carefully, and military is not the solution. Political dialogue is the solution to isolate the terrorists.

    AMY GOODMAN: Most of the nineteen who flew those four planes were from Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States, even also the royal family very close to the Bush family and the United States. Nawaz Sharif, another opposition leader in Pakistan, was exiled in Saudi Arabia. What is your assessment of Saudi Arabia?

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, you know, he is a Democrat, so when you ask me this question, I would always say that the problem — basic problem with the Muslim world is we don’t have democracy. And Saudi Arabia is one of those countries that, too, doesn’t have democracy. And sadly, the reason always given is that, you know, we are not ready for democracy, you know, our people are not ready for democracy. It’s like saying our people are not ready for freedom, that they like being slaves. You know, it’s just — the forces of status quo

    always have used various excuses to deprive people of their freedom.

    And the problem with the US is that, unfortunately, it always ends up backing military dictators or dictators at the expense of the people and unnecessarily alienates the people. I mean, when I spoke to the lawmakers, I asked them a simple question. I said, look, why would people in Pakistan — if you have a democratic government in Pakistan and back a democratic government which comes through free and fair elections, well, you do not pick horses. I mean, the US backed Benazir Bhutto. I thought that was absolutely wrong. They should not interfere in the domestic politics, because if they back one party, then everyone else goes against the US. So if a government comes through free and fair elections, why would it not want to work with the US? It’s bizarre. I don’t understand this. Why would a democratic elected government in Pakistan not want to work with the only superpower in the world? I mean, after all, we have to — if I’m a Democrat, I have to go to the people to get their vote, and if I don’t bring them prosperity, they’re not going to vote for me. And if I pick a fight with the only superpower, how am I going to help my people? So it’s so bizarre that they end up sort of picking one dictator, and this is our man, at the expense of and alienating the people.

    AMY GOODMAN: Osama bin Laden, believed to be in the northwest frontier of Pakistan. Your thoughts?

    IMRAN KHAN: How can anyone say where he is? I mean, I don’t understand. This is all pure speculation. He could be anywhere in the mountains of Afghanistan. I don’t think people have any idea of what this whole region is. These are wild mountainous countries. There is no border. There’s a 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is no border, there is no check post. There are no — you know, people have always crossed from one side to the other. The same Pashtun tribes, half of the tribe would be on one side of the Durand Line or the border, half is on the other side. How can anyone say what is going on where? And so, this is pure speculation that he’s on the Pakistan side of the border. He could easily be on the other side of the border.

    AMY GOODMAN: You’re here in the midst of the presidential race. Senator Barack Obama just won in South Carolina. In the debates, he talked about authorizing the US military to carry out unilateral attacks inside Pakistan without the support of the Pakistani government if there was actionable intelligence against al-Qaeda.

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, OK. The US has already conducted attacks inside Pakistan, and I’ll give you one example. They attacked this place where they thought some Taliban commander was hiding, a seminary, a madrasah. They ended up killing eighty-three people in this bomb attack in Bajaur. Out of those eighty-three, sixty were children below the age of eighteen. As a result of that attack, there was an immediate suicide bombing. A bomber walked into a camp, Pakistan military camp, killed fifty soldiers. Now, if the US gets it wrong and does these attacks, which it has got wrong several times, killed innocent people, all that is happening is that those people, because the US is just doing aerial bombing, those people then attack the Pakistan army. And as I said, the casualties that the Pakistan army is taking, it’s unsustainable. You know, they are having forty, fifty soldiers dying a day. When the Pakistan army — when innocent people are killed among the Pashtuns, they take revenge against the Pakistan army. They have done suicide bombings inside the GHQ in Rawalpindi. They’ve gone inside the commando base and blown up soldiers. So if the US has this intelligence, surely if the Pakistan army is taking these casualties, they should take them into confidence and tell them to deal with the situation, rather than taking unilateral action and then most of the time getting it wrong, ending up alienating the people and then people taking their anger out on the Pakistan army.

    AMY GOODMAN: There has been polls done in Pakistan that show a serious amount of support for Osama bin Laden, that he is actually more popular than President Bush.

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, you know, this is the issue. Why is it the case? On 9/11, when everyone in Pakistan from across the political spectrum stood with the US, why is it now that the situation has come to this, that basically when you say support for Osama bin Laden, it basically means anti-American? At the moment, anti-Americanism is growing in Pakistan. This should be, you know, carefully tackled. It’s not a black and white thing that you are with us or against us. You know, they hate us; why do they hate us? You should find out: why is this alienation going on? And if all the root causes are explored, one of them would be that the country is backing an unpopular military dictator against the people of Pakistan, against the democratic forces in Pakistan. And all those people who are turning against Musharraf are also turning against the US

    AMY GOODMAN: I mean, hasn’t Pakistan, the ISI, the intelligence services, been working closely with the Taliban, shoring them up, building them up in Afghanistan for many years?

    IMRAN KHAN: Well, if you go a little further back, then ISI and CIA were shoring up the Afghan Mujahideen. In fact, they trained the Afghan Mujahideen. The whole of ’80s, the people who were being trained in acts of terrorism against the Soviets were the Mujahideen, who most of them later on became Taliban. So the relationship actually goes right back to the ’80s, you know, when the CIA also had relationship with them. Then, of course, when the Soviets left, the Americans basically abandoned Afghanistan, and chaos prevailed, where the warlords took over various parts of the country. And the movement of Taliban was a genuine popular movement started against these warlords. And then, unfortunately, this movement then degenerated into a total Islamic fundamentalist.

    AMY GOODMAN: Have you ever considered a power-sharing agreement with Musharraf?

    IMRAN KHAN: Absolutely not, because that would be negating a democracy. Remember, Pakistan — you know, when we talk about Pakistan’s democracy, you should only look at India, because our history is similar to India. We were the same country, separated in 1947. And we came — and Pakistan came into being through democracy, through a vote. And people in Pakistan are quite prepared for democracy. There’s a level of maturity that prevails amongst the people. Our problem has been, unfortunately, because of this threat of a neighbor seven times the size, we became a security state, and army became very strong and actually kept interfering in the democratic process. So the way to go about bringing democracy to Pakistan is free and fair elections, independent justice system, not power-sharing with a military dictator.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Musharraf should resign?

    IMRAN KHAN: He should have resigned a year back, but he certainly — if we want stability in Pakistan, he must go. He is now the cause of instability in the country. He is attracting terrorism. The people who were not terrorists before, because of him, are now picking up the gun, because they’re losing faith in the democratic process. When you have rigged elections, when people feel that through their vote they cannot change the system, there are eventually going to pick up the gun.

AMY GOODMAN: Imran Khan, opposition leader, heads the Party of Justice in Pakistan. He is the cricket star who became a politician, could well be prime minister or president of Pakistan some day, though he is boycotting the February 18th elections of General Musharraf. He was imprisoned by General Musharraf in November, among many, among thousands of Pakistanis. We will continue to follow his work in Pakistan. After he left on Sunday, left the United States, he went on to Britain, where he, his ex-wife, Jemima Khan, and many others were protesting the meeting of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown with Musharraf, who is trying to build international support for his regime. And then he went back to Pakistan.

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