Pakistan is still in the grip of not knowing who to cheer on: Trump or their own Imran Kahn. Pakistanis still don’t quite know whether to take the cricket player seriously, but now they are taking the time to listen to him. Hopefully they will also ask why he has emerged as a political force, and what this tells us about the Western attitude towards their country.
Khan likes to paint himself as Donald Trump’s worst enemy. With so many Pakistanis resident in the West, and particularly the UK and Commonwealth countries, he is not going to be anti-Western if he wants an audience. But he has found a way of preying on the Pakistani mentality of feeling part of the West, but above it.
According to Khan, the US is trying to blame Pakistan for its own failures in Afghanistan. This is undoubtedly true, but it is not as simple as that. The US is good at playing two ends against the middle and playing off one neighbour against another, as in the case of its flawed India and Pakistan policy, likely doomed from the start.
Pakistan has been a useful nuisance for a long time, put there as the regional bogeyman to keep everyone else in line. There is no such thing as a distinctly US failure in Afghanistan: Pakistan has been an integral part of that conflict since day one, and has accepted much Western aid to continue doing so, as Trump himself enjoys pointing out. At no time has Pakistan been on one side, and been successful, and the US been on the other side, and failed.
In fact Pakistan has provided a very solid return on the usual heavily compromised US aid. It has supported different groups at different stages of the seemingly eternal conflict in Afghanistan. But the one consistent policy it has taken is to keep this conflict going, by any means possible.
It has been said that this is to ensure that groups favoured by Pakistan rather than India take power in Kabul. But the Pakistani authorities have also consistently refused to investigate a string of murders of former Afghan combatants who have been helped by charities to abandon violence and set up legitimate businesses, such as grocery shops.
Never Ending Conflict
Conflict itself is the aim, not winning and bringing it to an end. It must be remembered that such conflict requires more aid, more weapons and more personnel, who can of course by moved around at will, and are apparently all desperate to fight in Syria for groups like ISIS which they fought against back home.
Khan blames all, including his results at the polls, on “corrupt politicians”. But is he offering the populace anything different? Pakistanis feel better about themselves when he speaks. But how many of them seriously think that he would change anything if he got into power, when his Western connections are exactly the source of his own appeal?
Just like his country, Khan is proving a very useful nuisance. He might be compared with the former Ombudsman of Georgia, Giorgi Tugushi, who was appointed after his predecessor went into opposition to make a lot of noise about less important cases, and thereby pretend he was doing his job whilst ignoring the crimes of the government he later joined.
Pakistan’s politicians may indeed be hopelessly corrupt. But Khan is there to clean the teeth of the dragon, whilst allowing the dragon itself to roam around as before, hoping everyone will be distracted by its shiny new teeth.
Distorting mirrors can tell the truth
Khan is far from being the antithesis of Trump. He has more in common with the orange-faced clown than any other Pakistani politician. The only significant differences between the two are accounted for by the differing cultures of their two countries, though Khan has always tried his hardest to blur those distinctions.
Pakistan doesn’t have homegrown reality show stars, and nor does the same culture of glamour attach to its business world, which is very much an extension of its dirty politics. But the nearest thing it has to such people are those who become successful in Western countries, and practitioners of sports at which Pakistan has a global profile.
There are basically three of those sports: squash rackets, hockey and cricket. Of these, cricket has the highest profile because it is a team game, and pits Pakistan against its old colonial masters and other former British colonies at senior international level, making Pakistan a major player in a restricted world full of social and historic subtexts.
Khan was captain of the Pakistan national cricket team during one of its most successful periods. He was also based in England during this time, still a glamorous thing in a nation which has seen vast migration to the UK throughout its existence.
More than that, he was considered one of the most desirable men in the Western world, with a reputation as a London playboy which was exaggerated but not unfounded. Even if an individual Pakistani male doesn’t like cricket, or want to live in the UK or have a playboy lifestyle, he admires the fame Khan achieved, and the image of all-conquering Pakistani he represents.
As with Trump, Khan had many detractors for his methods, his teams being accused of illegally tampering with the ball and bribing umpires. But you couldn’t argue with his performance statistics, any more than you can argue with Trump’s bank balance. Again like Trump, he married a glamorous woman younger than himself – Jemima Goldsmith, daughter of rakish financier Sir James Goldsmith. Like Trump he also split from her, though unlike Trump he has returned to being a heartthrob rather than a lecherous old man subject to sexual assault charges.
Politically the two are also strikingly similar. Khan is also a famous outsider, who blames the political establishment for everything and bases his appeal on not being part of it, whilst moving in the same privileged social circles. Like Trump he talks about giving his country back to what he considers to be “the ordinary people”, and locking up his opponents, when he is not one of those ordinary people and is just as compromised, if not more so, by connections no better than those his opponents have.
Most importantly, Khan can also walk away from politics and back to another life whenever he wants, and therefore presents his actions as selfless sacrifice, rather than the product of cold calculation about how they will affect that other life. So are we to believe that there is no connection between Khan and Trump, when Donald looks in the mirror every day and thinks it is someone like Imran Khan staring back at him?
Babies and bathwater
Trump’s attempts to cut off aid to Pakistan for harbouring terrorists the US fights alongside in other conflicts is a threat to the Pakistani government, not Pakistan itself. What the US takes with one hand it can give with the other.
The US has also demonstrated that it regards regime change as the answer to everything. Whatever it says is wrong with a country must automatically be corrected simply if the desired replacement is installed, because only the regime it doesn’t like can be doing the things it is complaining about.
Both the US and Imran Khan have the same interest in spreading the disease which might be called “Portugalitis”. Most politicians will soon outstay their welcome. But in extreme cases people get tired of the whole political system, not just the individuals in it, and feel only radical change will help them.
Portugal blamed its monarchy for everything, and thus experienced a republican revolution in 1910, conducted by a minority but eventually accepted by the majority. This system was in turn overthrown by the military coup of 1926, which created a corporatist state which tried to be the opposite of the unstable republican democracy. This was then overthrown itself in the left-wing military coup of 1974, which once again tried to create a country which completely disavowed the previous regime and all what it did or did not accomplish.
It will be many generations before Americans want to overthrow their whole political system, but electing Trump is the nearest thing they have come to doing it. Despite all his promises, Trump has not withdrawn the US from foreign wars but pursued them with greater vigour if they can achieve the same thing in the countries concerned. He doesn’t want elections in Syria but the destruction of the whole Baathist political system, with public support, just like the US has achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan’s neighbours.
Trump and Khan both want Pakistanis to think that their only way out is to destroy their whole political system, not simply vote for someone different. Khan doesn’t have the means to do that, but the US does, and has shown it is very happy to use them.
If that means Khan becomes President of Pakistan, the basis of his appeal will be bringing Western glamour to the country, making all Pakistanis feel they can be like him to some degree. Will that make Pakistan more independent, and less influenced by the same West, when the leader of that West has followed exactly the same path into office?
Bad boys made still bad
Pakistan was created by the British because, like all great powers, they couldn’t accept former colonies of theirs being equal members with themselves in the family of nations. British India had to be divided into smaller and conflicting states so it couldn’t achieve the level of the UK.
India’s Muslim population lived on opposite sides of the subcontinent, making the new state of Pakistan unworkable. But if India didn’t like what the West wanted it to be, these Muslim bogeymen could be set on it from both directions. If Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh didn’t like the role assigned to them, their benefits (such as nuclear weapons) would be take away and they would be subsumed into India again.
The subcontinent states now want to move beyond those days. But Pakistan is finding this more difficult than India because Western nations can’t conceive it has a positive purpose. No one will fund or give political support to a Pakistan which isn’t a back street bully. Whatever friendly words they might use, Western policymakers don’t see it having anything positive to offer.
What are Pakistan’s leading exports? If anyone is interested, a list can be found here: But how many people associate these items with Pakistan, rather than the opium which comes from areas its government has never controlled. Islamic terrorists and ongoing conflict with India is considered more of its forte. The country shouldn’t have such a bad export profile after 70 years as a Western ally, but it has because the major trading nations want it that way.
Imran Khan may pick holes in US policy, and its attitude towards Pakistan and other faithful friends. The US knows he has a point, and so do his own people. But he is wilfully talking about side issues, which will not persuade the vast diaspora to return home and build the country
Will Khan renounce Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, or the threat the country can pose which has gained it such benefits? Would his electors even let him? His ascension would place Pakistan even more firmly in the Western camp, and ensure that as long as the previous system could be blamed for everything, the new government won’t try and change the unhealthy alliance it is saddled with.
Pringle that won’t go pop
When Peter May, a former national team captain, was appointed chairman of the England cricket selectors in 1982 he insisted on bringing the Cambridge University prodigy Derek Pringle, a promising but untested player, into the team. Not only that, but he treated him as the next big star, giving him the opportunities and responsibilities generally reserved for the most senior players.
Pringle soon became the man England fans loved to hate, as he never became anything like the player May seemed to think he was. He played 74 international matches, but his statistics remained unimpressive. It was speculated that the real reason he continued to be picked was that Peter May had four daughters, and Pringle was the son he had never had.
However the unconventional, seemingly out of place Pringle had one significant virtue: he was average, but consistently average. You couldn’t expect him to do anything major, but you knew what you would get from him even if other players misfired. If all a captain’s other plans went wrong, Pringle would deliver, provided not much was expected of him.
Imran Khan was a far better cricketer than Pringle, who he played against on many occasions. But the evidence suggests that, whether he likes it or not, his presence in Pakistani politics is being tolerated for exactly the same reason. He seems a rebel, but won’t rock the boat. He can be relied upon to promise fresh air, but make sure it doesn’t blow in the direction it should be blowing in, as that is not what his captain wants.
Khan is much cleverer than Trump, but Pakistan cannot compete with the United States on the political playing field. Time will tell who is conning who, but few will want to be too close to either of them when that time finally comes. One thing is certain in the final analysis, the Pseudo-Opposition is “Alive and Well” in Pakistan.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.