- Unarguably, the biggest celebrity of Pakistan as a legendary cricketer, Khan, as the prime minister of Pakistan is one of those very, very few political leaders of Pakistan who evoke an impassioned response in a crowd of thousands.
- What is also significant about Khan’s visit to the US is acknowledgment of the US government that they look forward to working with the present government of Pakistan.
People of Pakistan love Imran Khan. Yes. People of Pakistan love Imran Khan even when they live away from Pakistan. And the story of that love began decades ago, long before Imran Khan became the prime minister of Pakistan. The rest is mere details.
The overwhelming response of thousands of Pakistanis to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Capital Arena One speech in Washington D.C, where in the words of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Khan was treated like a “rock star”, is merely another manifestation of Pakistanis’ long standing love and admiration for Khan. Unarguably, the biggest celebrity of Pakistan as a legendary cricketer, Khan, as the prime minister of Pakistan is one of those very, very few political leaders of Pakistan who evoke an impassioned response in a crowd of thousands. That quintessential response to the celebrity status of a political leader is, in my opinion, a great responsibility.
That loved-like-no-one-else politician becomes answerable not just as the head of state, but also as the leader a large number of people trust and look up to. The power of public love, admiration and trust is even greater than any constitutional power, in a way, and together, they weld into that elusive strength that bestows upon a leader that rare credibility that only a miniscule number of politicians have ever had in Pakistan. Now Khan has to live up to his oft-stated words, which he repeated to a rapturous crowd of Pakistanis at Capital One Arena: “ A society devoid of merit never progresses. In a democracy, the head of the state is answerable [to people]. Democracy prevails when the leader is accountable.”
It happened to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and it happened to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It also happened, albeit briefly, to Benzair Bhutto. Khan, today, is among those very few leaders of Pakistan who, entrusted with people’s confidence, will have to work extra hard, and deliver, more than his capacity and capability, to become worthy of expectations of people, within and outside Pakistan. The road is dark, bumpy, full of potholes, curving into blind precipices, unseen and dangerous turns. Khan is in for a ride of his life. And this one will exact a high price, on myriad levels.
Some of the important aspects of Khan’s maiden visit to the US are not the delightful headlines of big handshakes, the tour of the White House with US President Donald Trump, or the beaming smile of his gorgeous wife, First Lady Melania Trump, standing next to Khan in an official photo with her husband.
It is not even the unexpected pleasantness of his meeting with Trump, whose warm welcome of Khan as the “very popular prime minister of Pakistan” was an ice-breaker not many cynics and observers of Pakistan-US dynamics expected for a leader of a country whom the US looks at suspicion, most of the time. Pakistan’s willingness to move ahead with the idea of peace becoming a reality in the war-ravaged Afghanistan is neither new nor a mere articulation of feel-good diplomatic words.
Khan, for years, reiterated the importance of ending the Afghan war with a dialogue with Taliban, and in 2019, the US, along with other world powers, is in agreement with Khan’s stance: there is no option other than dialogue to end the Afghan War. The unquantifiable loss–human, material and emotional–that Pakistan has incurred in the two Afghan wars, one still continuing, must have closure now, and there is no other option better than peace in Afghanistan for that. Irrefutable is the importance of the role the present Pakistani government has and can play in US negotiations with the Taliban.
Khan tweeted:” I want to assure President Trump Pakistan will do everything within its power to facilitate the Afghan peace process. The world owes it to the long-suffering Afghan people to bring about peace after 4 decades of conflict.”
And then there is India. There will be no long-lasting peace in the region if the status quo of open hostility and relentless cross-border firing on LoC does not end. And no one understands the value of that peace more than Pakistan’s prime minister whose vociferous stance apropos his decades-long opposition to Pakistan’s involvement, direct or indirect, in regional conflicts is on record. The region needs peace for attention to be fully diverted to the biggest and the collective issue of Pakistan and India: poverty.
India’s reaction to Trump’s suggestion of mediation may be understandable in terms of India’s traditional stance of non-acceptance of a third party mediation in the Kashmir issue, millions of Pakistanis, along with their prime minister, welcome the idea. Pakistan and India must move forward for the sake of their 1.50 billion people. Khan tweeted: “Surprised by reaction of India to Pres Trump’s offer of mediation to bring Pak & India to dialogue table for resolving Kashmir conflict which has held subcontinent hostage for 70 yrs. Generations of Kashmiris have suffered & are suffering daily and need conflict resolution.”
What is also significant about Khan’s visit to the US is acknowledgment of the US government that they look forward to working with the present government of Pakistan. That Pakistan, in the words of its prime minister, wishes to have a relationship with the US that, moving beyond the traditional security paradigm, works on a principle of mutual respect and bilateral interests. It is refreshing to see that the American leadership is on the same page.
Lindsey Graham, Republican Senator, often in headlines for his hard stance vis-à-vis Pakistan, acknowledged that Prime Minister Khan “was right” all along about the inevitability of “reconciling with the Taliban.” Graham tweeted: “Great meeting with the PM of Pakistan, Imran Khan. @ImranKhanPTI In my opinion he and his government represent the best opportunity in decades to have a beneficial strategic relationship with the US. This will help us secure Afghanistan and the region long-term.”
Graham’s words reflect the shift in US perception of Pakistan: “Tremendous business opportunities exist between Pakistan and the US through a free trade agreement tied to our mutual security interests. It’s also our best chance in decades to reset the relationship between the US and Pakistan.”
Call for peace
In an hour and a half session at the United States Institute of Peace, in which Khan handled most of the questions in a composed, articulate and rational manner, even exhibiting occasional flashes of humour, Khan, refreshingly honest and direct, stated Pakistan’s official position on the topic of terrorism, and Pakistan’s real and alleged endorsement of militant groups: “I can tell you as a Pakistani, never did I feel more humiliated when Osama bin Laden was taken out in Pakistan by US troops. Here was a country that was supposed to be an ally, and our ally didn’t trust us. It was humiliating for all Pakistanis. We never ever want to be in that situation again.”
And: “It is in the interest of Pakistan that we do not allow any armed militias in our country. We have suffered. It has destabilised Pakistan. Even before Pulwama we had decided we’d disarm all militant groups in Pakistan. And I repeat, it is in Pakistan’s interest.”
As for those who think Khan’s words are mere rhetoric in front of a foreign audience, and nothing happens in Pakistan without the go-ahead of Pakistan’s army, this is what Khan said in the US: “We could not be disarming them [militant groups] if the security forces were not standing behind us. Police is incapable of disarming these groups. It is the army that is helping us disarm all militant groups in Pakistan.”
Pakistan, under the leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan, is poised to become a country that is fair, compassionate, prosperous, and peaceful. In this Pakistan, there will be opportunity, accountability and justice on all levels. And this Pakistan will function as a regional power that has interests-based, far-reaching, good relations with all its neighbours. Turning these words into a tangible reality is a process that would take years, and a will power, sincerity of intention and consistent work that is without reproach, policies that are farsighted, and implementation that is incorruptible and devoid of any agenda of personal gain and power.
Millions of Pakistanis believe Khan can do that. Is Khan worthy of that trust? Only time will tell. Will Khan be true to all his promises, only time will tell. Will Khan succeed? Only time will tell.