Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan is to Pakistan what Sarah
Palin is to the US: controversial, and, arguably, a force to be
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
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
The country's youth are particularly rapt by Khan, who appeals to
their sense of national pride, says columnist Fasi Zaka. …