DAVOS, Switzerland -- Former cricket star turned Pakistani politician Imran Khan has been working the corridors of the World Economic Forum in Davos, with a message about the war in Afghanistan, which has spilled over into Pakistan.
“This war on terror is a disaster for the people of the U.S. It’s a bigger disaster for the people of Pakistan. It is causing more radicalization, more polarization in the society. The war is perceived by the vast majority as a war against Islam and because it is perceived as a war against Islam there is no shortage of people willing to die for it.”
Khan is the leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaf party in Pakistan, which is trying to make inroads on the political scene, and eventually take power. Pessimistic about the prospects for the war in Afghanistan to succeed, he says the situation in his own country has become worse in the past few years. He points to the recent assassination of provincial Governor Salman Taseer, who was shot by a bodyguard opposed to his relatively liberal views. Taseer had called for leniency in the case of a Christian mother sentenced to death under the blasphemy ban. He was outspoken against the blasphemy law. In the wake of his assassination, people have come out and staged protests in support of his confessed killer.
“The Governor being killed for something so trivial. Before 2004 his statement wouldn’t have even made the newspapers, and he ends up getting killed, and the killer becomes a hero. That shows how radicalized society has become,” Khan says.
Khan says this high-profile case isn’t the first example of a frightening trend in Pakistan.
“There have been a lot of killings before this. Imams of mosques, religious leaders who have called suicide bombing un-Islamic. They were shot. There have been suicide bombings in mosques.”
He claims Al Qaeda is the beneficiary of the chaos that has been created.
Imran Khan says mistakes in what was originally dubbed the “War on Terror” were made early on. Al Qaeda, he says, the perpetrators of 9/11, should have been isolated, and attacked as criminals, terrorists. The Taliban, actually, were not the problem, according to Khan.
“The invasion of Afghanistan was all wrong because the Taliban were not terrorists. They were religious fundamentalists. There is a big difference between militant extremists and religious fundamentalists. They were just fundamentalists reacting to the violence of the Afghan warlords.”
He is referring to the Taliban’s rise to power after bringing ruthless law and order to Afghanistan, at the end of a period of Mujahedin and warlord fighting in the 1990s. “Only Al Qaeda,” he says, “had the capacity to hit Western targets. The Pashtuns, especially the Taliban, are semi-literate medieval people.”
Of course those religious fundamentalists, the Taliban, gave shelter to Al Qaeda back in the early days of the millennium, and refused to hand Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden over after the 9/11 attacks. So it is easy to say that Al Qaeda should have been targeted alone. But it was much more difficult to actually do that.
Khan says that the United States squandered goodwill in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“You see, the whole Muslim world on 9/11 was willing to help the United States. Why not co-opt the Muslim world to go after these few criminals?”
Though Khan says the Muslim world was ready to help at that point, there were plenty of anti-U.S. demonstrations in places like Islamabad, Pakistan, right after 9/11. Former President George W. Bush was always vocal about the campaign to root out terrorism not being a war on Islam. But apparently many did not get the message.
Khan claims those in the Muslim world who believe the United States and its allies are waging war against Islam because they “took their eye off the ball in Afghanistan” and then he says, “the invasion of Iraq reinforced all over the Muslim world that Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism, 9/11 or Al Qaeda and that this was a war in a Muslim country with oil resources.”
Khan says once the Taliban fell, the U.S. and its allies should have gotten out, having once provided for some development and good governance. He says that the air strikes that continue to this day and collateral damage created, at times, in their aftermath, have created whole families who now want to fight to avenge relatives lost.
He says the protracted nature of the war, and the fact that Afghanistan is still lacking in development, has led to conditions by which this war has morphed into “a Pashtun struggle. Fifteen million Pashtuns in Afghanistan and 25 million in Pakistan, and the tribal belt has got involved, so the original aim of the war was lost.”
Pashtuns have always lived in a decentralized system -- they have never accepted central authority, according to Khan. But foreign invasions, he says, have always pulled them together.
So what would Imran Khan do about this situation? He says he would pull out. “I would immediately declare a cease-fire and I would use the Pakistan government to help the United States in forming a government of national consensus.”
“The more military action, the more fighting, the more occupation and collateral damage, the more the beneficiary is Al Qaeda, because my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” Khan says.
He claims he would shift responsibility to Afghanistan and Pakistan to root out Al Qaeda on their own, and then, he says, things would “fizzle out”.
But Afghanistan’s isolation led to its becoming a training ground for terrorists. And Pakistan’s government is by Khan’s account not stable. Pakistan may not be in the position to oversee Afghanistan’s stabilization. Pakistan’s security service propped up and some would say created the Taliban in the first place.
Khan says watching events in Tunisia and Egypt, he warns that Pakistan is even more vulnerable.
“Things are much worse in Pakistan than in Tunisia. Every now and then you have riots in Pakistan -- not at the same level, but you get the feeling that any time something could happen.”
He points out that the rallies in support of Pakistan’s chief justice, who had been fired by then President Musharraf, and that led ultimately to the downfall of Musharraf’s government, were really about people challenging the status quo, and wanting change.
Elections are expected again, within the next year in Pakistan. Khan believes his party, long on the margins, will finally appeal to the youth of his country, where, like many of its neighbors, seventy percent of the population is under the age of thirty, and struggling against poverty and underemployment.