Imran Khan: Better A ‘Bad Democrat’

Pakistan's Imran Khan, a world-renowned cricket star turned politician, visited the United States recently to urge Washington to end its support for President Pervez Musharraf. With Pakistan descending into ever more bloodshed and chaos, and parliamentary elections fast approaching, Khan spoke with NEWSWEEK's Fareed Zakaria, Tony Emerson and Jonathan Tepperman about the spiraling crisis and what Washington should do about it. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What do you hope to achieve by meeting with U.S. politicians?
Khan: Musharraf has convinced people here that he is the only one who can combat terrorism and protect Pakistan's nuclear weapons. I've come to give the other side of the story.

What do you expect to happen in the parliamentary elections on Feb. 18?
Had the elections been held right after Benazir [Bhutto's] assassination [on Dec. 27], her party would have swept everywhere. I knew she was popular, but even I was surprised by the emotions that erupted after her death. Now the results will be more mixed.

How will Musharraf ' s party do?
You can't campaign: there's such fear of suicide attacks, and the opposition think the government will stage something. If there's low voter turnout, there's a much better chance of being able to rig the election. That's what Musharraf is hoping for. But there's a 50 percent chance he won't hold elections at all because [his party] would get so few seats.

Why?
It's not just Benazir's murder. There's an economic meltdown taking place. There are blackouts. Factories are closing. Unemployment is increasing. There's a huge fiscal deficit. A trade deficit. A wheat deficit. This has never happened before.

Are the Americans pushing for elections?
The only thing the Bush administration is pushing [for] is Musharraf. I cannot understand it. Last year was the bloodiest year in Pakistan's history. We had almost 60 attacks. [Extremists] hit the Army right in its headquarters. The whole tribal area could blow up.

What ' s the answer? Musharraf has tried force, and signing deals, in the tribal areas.
No one understands these areas. I don't think many people in Pakistan understand them.

[And] there hasn't been a planned strategy. The U.S. occasionally puts pressure on Musharraf and he does something, but it's all window dressing, token stuff. Bush arrives in Pakistan; they kill 145 people in Waziristan and say, "We've just demolished terrorism." But the casualties the Army is taking are unsustainable. It is going to refuse to continue.

What approach would work, then?
The Pashtun tribes have turned against the Army, not for religious reasons but out of revenge for casualties inflicted. As a result, there is chaos. Everyone is petrified. If anyone is thought to be pro-government, the Taliban come after them. If you are supposed to be a terrorist, the [security services] go after you. But eventually they will have to start a political process. It is the only option.

But this area is seen as the locus of global terror. What should the West do? Nothing?
I've heard talk about the Americans' going in there. Do they understand that they're talking about a million armed men in the tribal agencies? It would make Iraq look like child's play. You only have to look at history. The tribes only unite when foreigners come in. The tribes united against the Mughals, the Brits, the Sikhs, the Russians. All the Americans have to do is come in, and this whole area is going to go up in flames.

So what do you advocate?
Look, it's a mess. It was a mistake to turn the Taliban against you. They were just illiterate religious beggars. Those people, the more you kill them, the more they're going to come after you. Now you have to separate the Pashtuns from Al Qaeda and start negotiations. It will be a slow process, but they are very good at negotiation. That's the route to go.

But how do you persuade Pashtuns to allow the United States to go after Al Qaeda?
Pay them. For a fraction of the money spent on the war, they might have delivered Osama bin Laden. A little bit of money would have given them a stake in peace.

How do you start the process now?
You [must] have credible brokers. Musharraf is now attracting terrorists. The fundamentalists are targeting him. The Pashtuns are targeting him. So you need to have free and fair elections to set up a genuine elected government that can negotiate.

Do you see a figure emerging from elections who could hold the country together?
My contention, after watching the mess Musharraf has made, is that even a bad democrat would be better than a military man. Army men are not equipped to deal with the world. They are used to giving and taking orders, no debate. They have always made a mess of the country. Whatever emerges from democracy—it'll be messy, I'm not saying we'll have utopia—but we'll be going in the right direction.

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