How Pakistan's Imran Khan Taps Anti-Americanism to Fuel Political Rise

Article excerpt

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan is to Pakistan what Sarah Palin is to the US: controversial, and, arguably, a force to be reckoned with.

Imran Khan once won glory for his country as its most successful cricket captain. After making an unspectacular debut into Pakistani politics as leader of the Movement for Justice party 15 years ago, he positioned himself as a maverick outsider calling for sweeping reform within Islamabad's murky corridors of power.

Now, it looks as though he might be about to make a comeback on the wave of anti-American sentiment that's sweeping the country.

Mr. Khan's political life appears to be experiencing a new high thanks in part to his unique brand of anti-Americanism, which finds support among Pakistan's professional classes, youth, and women.

According to research carried out by Pew polling in Pakistan, he enjoys a 68 percent approval rating, making him Pakistan's most popular politician, up from 52 percent last year. The relationship between the United States and Pakistan, meanwhile, has sunk to new lows in recent months, following the Osama bin Laden raid and the release of a CIA agent who killed two Pakistani citizens.

Long derided as a non-serious candidate in an electoral system dominated by two major parties, Khan surprised political pundits last month by attracting thousands of supporters to a major protest in the northwestern city of Peshawar against US drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas, before going on to stage a sit-in to "symbolically block" NATO supply lines for Afghanistan that pass through the port city of Karachi.

With his good looks and seeming willingness to speak plainly, Khan is to Pakistan what Sarah Palin is to the US: controversial, an antidote to current administration, and, some say, a force to be reckoned with.

American officials in Islamabad concede they are watching him closely, and Khan's antics often dominate local news coverage. But while Khan's rising stature may be indicative of rising anti- American sentiment among Pakistan's educated classes, analysts still aren't convinced of how seriously to take him.

"The whole world knows that an accused is innocent until a court says you are guilty. He who takes the law into his own hand and kills is himself a terrorist," he said at the Peshawar rally, referring to US forces.

Such rhetoric is common among Islamist hard-liners and religious party leaders, but Khan's urbane appeal as a former cricketer who won international acclaim means he can reach a wider, less religious audience and position himself as the acceptable face of anti- Americanism, says Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan's Herald Magazine.

When mullahs talk, people don't stop to listen. "But when a Western educated clean-shaven man does the same, it does suit them," Mr. Alam says of Khan, who was educated at Oxford and maintained a reputation as a playboy throughout his cricketing career, before his nine-year marriage with British heiress Jemima Goldsmith.

Khan has what the US wants

Khan's support base of Pakistan's middle class, women, and the youth (who make up 70 percent of the country) are exactly the groups the US has targeted in its battle to win hearts and minds in Pakistan.

The country's youth are particularly rapt by Khan, who appeals to their sense of national pride, says columnist Fasi Zaka. …