On June 18, 2023, Wajahat S. Khan, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Pakistan Initiative, spent nearly an hour interviewing former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Khan, who was ousted from power in April 2022, revealed new details about why efforts to achieve a historic peace with India collapsed and spoke to the worries he heard his army chief express about the state of Pakistani military readiness relative to India. He also lamented the steep decline of Pakistan’s economy and democracy and explained why he’s preparing himself for the possibility of being jailed or even assassinated.
Check out the transcript of the interview below, and Wajahat S. Khan’s analysis of the big takeaways from his conversation with the ex-Pakistani leader here.
Read the recap of this conversation
Watch the full interview
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Good morning, good afternoon, and a very good evening to you, wherever you may be. My name is Wajahat Saeed Khan, I’m the senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. However, I am here in New York City with the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Pakistan’s former prime minister, the one and only Imran Khan. Good evening, Khan Sahib. How are you doing?
IMRAN KHAN: As good as in the circumstances, living in interesting times.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Well, speaking of the times, is your famous exercise regime still in play considering your bullet injuries and considering your schedule these days with your 150-something court cases?
IMRAN KHAN: I still haven’t fully recovered from my bullet wound because it damaged my nerve in my right foot, so therefore, exercise is very limited. And then I have, well, almost 160 cases now, so my time is really spent from one courtroom to the other. Plus, I mean a lot of them are terrorism cases. I mean, I’m supposed to have committed terrorism, so about forty odd cases are related to terrorism.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Well, let’s start with that, let’s start with the big picture and go to the… Let’s time travel back to April 2022 when all of this started and begin with the so-called American connection with your ouster. A lot of people are interested, at least in this neck of the woods, about whether it was shortsighted of you to blame the US, target the Americans after your ouster, considering how you and your party are now hoping for their support. The State Department has just recently called you a private citizen and said that it’s not going to comment on your status. I see you smiling, interestingly, but do you think it was shortsighted to really tick off the Americans considering where you stand now regarding their support?
IMRAN KHAN: Well, let’s just break it up. First of all, the facts. What happened? I get a cipher—a cipher is this coded message—from my ambassador in Washington. He sends me this coded message, and now you tell me how should have I responded, I mean anyone, if they had got a message like that: prime minister of a country gets a message, an official meeting taking place between the undersecretary of state, US, and the Pakistan ambassador in Washington, and the message reads, here’s the prime minister reading the message that unless the Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is removed in a vote of no confidence, there’ll be consequences for Pakistan. There were other things in the cipher, but I mean imagine a prime minister of a country—elected prime minister of a country—reads this message that an American official is telling my ambassador that Pakistan should get rid of me, otherwise there’ll be consequences.
So, I took this to the cabinet because I thought this was deeply insulting for a country of 250 million people. I thought it was humiliating for anyone to write… Any official from any country writing a letter like that or sending a message like that to the prime minister—elected prime minister. Then I put it in front of the National Security Council, the National Security Council, which is headed by all the service chiefs, including the army chief. The National Security Council then gives a demarche to the US, protest that this is meddling in the internal affairs of Pakistan. But what happened was that after the cipher, the next day, the vote of [no] confidence is tabled in the National Assembly and within weeks my govern goes. So, I basically narrated the fact this is not anti-Americanism. This is a fact.
After my government goes, the government of Shehbaz Sharif, who was part of this conspiracy, they then hold a National Security Council meeting. They call the ambassador from the US, Asad Majeed, and they asked him, “Were the contents in the cipher true? Does he stand by them?” And he stood by them. He said, “This is exactly what happened.” So, I was basically narrating a fact. Now, when you… As subsequently things unfolded, it turns out that our ex-army chief, who was then the army chief, General Bajwa, he was actually campaigning through his lobbyist Husain Haqqani,1When asked for comment on these allegations, Haqqani told the Atlantic Council: “Like all conspiracy theorists and demagogues, Imran Khan does not feel the need to offer any evidence of allegations he makes.” Haqqani’s attorney has also issued a cease-and-desist letter to Khan for making “false and defamatory statements” about Haqqani. who was paid thirty thousand dollars by my government, he was lobbying with the US to say that Imran Khan was anti-American. He tweeted, “General Bajwa was pro-American, I was anti-American.” So therefore, what transpired later on was that actually my own army chief was campaigning against me, that I was anti-American and I think he was feeding them because that’s how this cipher must have come because I had perfectly good relationship with the Trump administration.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: So premised on that, I understand it’s a long arc, it’s a long narrative, but they say that your positions have been inconsistent. There was first, of course, the letter, then there wasn’t a letter, then there was the cipher, which was then admonished by the ambassador himself: Asad Majeed Khan. Then there was the Donald Lu2In November 2022, when asked about Imran Khan’s allegations that US officials such as Donald Lu, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, was involved in removing him from power, State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel said that “there is not and there has never been a truth to these allegations” and that “ultimately, we will not let propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation get in the way of any bilateral relationship, including our valued bilateral partner with Pakistan.” connection, the threat by Donald Lu, so to say. Then there was, of course, you premising all of this after the vote of confidence saying, “This is because I didn’t… I said, ‘absolutely not’ to their drone bases.” Then, of course, in all of this is compounded by you politicking, telling millions of Pakistanis almost on a nightly basis that there’s a clear American conspiracy for regime change, then comes the Haqqani connection where you said that, “He’s taken money and he’s convinced all of Washington against me.”
Then you finally put it down in the court of Bajwa, General Bajwa, the former army chief. The question is then I understand there was a lot happening, it was over months, but today the positioning is quite simple. You said it’s less the Americans, it’s more Bajwa. That was not where you were a year ago, fourteen months ago. And that has hurt your credibility, at least in this neck of the woods, in Washington. So, would you have done it differently?
IMRAN KHAN: Well, look, Wajahat, look, I used the word “unfolded,” as things unfolded. At the time, this is first week of March, I received this cipher, and so I didn’t immediately talk about the cipher because there was an OIC [Organization of Islamic Countries] conference in Pakistan and I didn’t want this thing to break before the OIC conference, which was about 22nd or 23rd of March. And so therefore after that, on the 28th of March, I first disclosed this. And at that time, I was convinced that… I mean, who would not be convinced reading that cipher? Who would not be convinced that the Americans are demanding that they get rid of the prime minister? I mean, what inference should I get from that? Clearly, it was clear. So, therefore, I did blame them that they were responsible. I never used the word “bases,” I never used what reasons.
All I give the facts that here is the cipher, this is what happened. The moment the cipher came, the vote of no confidence is tabled. And then those members of our back benches in our party, who we had knowledge that they were visiting the American embassy for the past two months before, and they were the first ones to jump ship. So, what am I supposed to gather from that? So therefore, that’s exactly what I said. Now, subsequently, how did we find out? Because I think FARA [Foreign Agents Registration Act], which is in the United States, you have to register, all lobbies have to register there. And FARA, then this thing came out that Husain Haqqani was on my government’s payroll, but then not hired by us, hired by Bajwa. And then there was a Haqqani tweet, which came in the end of March, which said that General Bajwa is pro-American and Imran Khan is anti-American.
So, then you put two and two together exactly what had happened because General Bajwa wanted the extension. So, that extension he wanted—he later on told the United States too. So, these things subsequently came out. Therefore, whatever I said was at the time exactly what I believed, and in the end, what was the conclusion? My conclusion was that General Bajwa had lobbied: he was lobbying for himself. He had deliberately campaigned against me to make me the bad guy because the conspiracy was then his, and as it unfolded.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: I’m with you about the unfolding bit and especially that it went over months and that you adjusted your positions accordingly, Khan Sahib. But again, in retrospect, was it shortsighted to have so much vitriol, so much venom, so much rhetoric on a daily basis, convincing millions of Pakistanis, angering them about the so-called American connection and thus alienating Washington, alienating the Biden administration, which today calls you a “private citizen” and won’t back you up, even though clearly you need that backing.
IMRAN KHAN: Listen, Wajahat, I don’t want any backing from anyone. Look, if the people of Pakistan decide that they want to elect me as the prime minister, fine. If they don’t, I don’t care. I mean, I’ve seen everything. I’ve been to the top. I mean, I have more love and respect in this country than anyone else, why would all the twelve parties together, including the military establishment, with one aim: somehow the whole policy is how to get rid of one man? The whole country’s democracy is being dismantled just to get rid of one man. So, I have more love and respect in this country. I don’t care whether I become the prime minister or not. But the truth is that this is exactly what happened. How humiliating is it for a country? How come the US thinks of me as anti-American? Why don’t they want to ask the question that how could their official make such an arrogant statement that a country should… an ambassador should give a message to get rid of the elected prime minister?
And you didn’t think that there should be any response because the US would be annoyed with me? I mean, I should shut up and allow this thing to happen? Well, if they are angry at me, so be it. I mean, all I want the US… I don’t want any backing for myself—they professed values, the Western values are democracy, human rights, rule of law. Whenever they have to whip up China in Hong Kong or in Uyghurs or the Russians, they use these things. All I want them to do is to say all these things are being violated in Pakistan; human rights, custodial torture going on, democracy being dismantled. They should talk about that. I don’t care if they say nothing about me, I’m quite happy being a private citizen.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: All right, well, when you were not a private citizen, when you were Pakistan’s prime minister, you were praised. Let’s go back to even further, forget last year. Let’s go back to your career. Let’s pivot to India. So, 2019, February, as you remember, there was a military escalation with India, Pakistan Air Force jets shot down Indian aircraft. You were praised globally in those tense, twenty-four, forty-eight hours for the stance you took against war. You deescalated what could have been a potential nuclear face-off between these two rivals. Again, I’m going to say it on the record because it needs to be said, you were quite responsible in your statements and praised globally, even in India. However, eventually the criticism is that you missed an opportunity to establish long-term peace with India.
General Bajwa—I know you’re not a fan—but General Bajwa came with a peace plan, which was constructed very delicately over years. There was a ceasefire, there were trade talks, there was a potential visit in the offing, and you rejected the trade talks, even though as commerce minister, which you wore that hat, you first approved the trade ties, but then as prime minister, you rejected them. It was quite awkward to see the same man, Imran Khan, the commerce minister saying, yes, peace with India, normalization with India, saying no as prime minister, no peace with India, no normalization with India. Well, what caused that irregularity? Was there ISI interference? Did you get a second reckoning? Why did you change your mind?
IMRAN KHAN: Look, I do not believe in settling issues through military action. I have always been anti-military settling of issues through war or through using arms. And this is not now. It’s been my view for three decades. Now, what happened was that when that happened, when the Pulwama [attack] happened and we returned the pilot [who was shot down], I mean, it was clear that it is unthinkable for two nuclear-armed countries to even think of escalation. I am worried about what’s happening in Ukraine right now and I worry that this could go out of hand. So as someone who is against nuclear arms and the idea of the world committing suicide through nuclear war…So what happened was that in [August] 2019, India took away the statehood of Kashmir unilaterally.
Now, we all know that there’s a United Nations Security Council, not one, two resolutions on Kashmir that Kashmir was a disputed territory between Pakistan and India, and through a plebiscite, it was to be decided. The people of Kashmir were supposed to decide. Now, that was the status. Suddenly, on 5th August 2019, India unilaterally got rid of that treaty and the UN resolutions and took away the statehood. What were we supposed to do? A hundred thousand Kashmiris have been martyred in their quest for independence, and so what was Pakistan supposed to do? Accept the fait accompli? Or actually stand with the people of Kashmir who had given such sacrifices? So that’s what we decided. And by the way, I tried my best before then to improve our relationship with India. In fact, my first statement was, “You come one step towards us, we’ll come two towards you.”
I mean, I tried everything, but I came across this brick wall, and I realized it’s something to do with the RSS-BJP mentality where they’ve cashed in on hostility with Pakistan. That’s all. But, frankly, it was never a question of being misled by anyone. And, Bajwa, I don’t know what he’s talking about because the idea which he was floating, it was that first India would give some concession, then we would invite them to Pakistan. The concession was that they would gradually take steps that would undo what they had done on 5th August. But that never happened. So, we had never moved forward. I don’t know what he is talking about because Bajwa keeps shifting his positions.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: So, what about the bit which your office did? Forget Bajwa. You accepted during all of this, during this potential breakthrough, when there was a ceasefire in place, when there was a visit by Prime Minister Modi in the offing where you would’ve hosted him, if I may… this is a Nobel Prize being presented to you and here you are as commerce minister, where you accept trade talks and then a few days later you reject your own trade talks. I’m trying to get to the bottom of, was it forces within the military? Was it the ISI? Did you get intelligence briefings from someone? What caused you to change your mind when you were almost there along with your chief in trying to repair ties, even convincing India to back off from Article 370?
IMRAN KHAN: Look, I don’t remember the trade talks. All I know is that there was supposed to be a quid pro quo. India was supposed to give some concession, give some sort of a roadmap to Kashmir, and I was going to then host Prime Minister Modi in Pakistan. But it never materialized. So, it never went further than that. That’s how it was.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Speaking of that era as well, it was around the same time, now recent reports have emerged, that General Bajwa went public at that time, he said it privately, he said it to a bunch of journalists, that Pakistan has lost military parity with India. Pakistan’s tanks are rusted, Pakistan doesn’t have the fuel to provide its forces to fight a war, and that’s why peace with India is inevitable because Pakistan can’t keep up. You’ve seen this in recent news items. Did that intelligence, did that briefing from your chief of army staff ever come to your office? Did he ever consult you or confront you with this data?
IMRAN KHAN: Look, even if that was the case, for an army chief to make these statement is so ridiculous. What army chief makes these foolish statements even if it is the case? So, number one, yes, General Bajwa would make these statements, but I mean for an army chief, he is basically saying, “We are just too weak.” You never make such a statement. But more to the point, who wants war with India? I mean, why would we want war with India? Why would anyone want to see a confrontation between the two countries? The thing is, like two civilized countries, we should solve our issues through dialogue, and if we can’t solve them through dialogue, we just keep talking. But war is never an option. So, firstly, war is not an option. Secondly, for an army chief to keep saying that, I can’t imagine an army chief saying such a stupid thing as that.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: But you were not privy to it? He did not inform you of this lack of security preparedness vis-à-vis India?
IMRAN KHAN: No, no. He used to talk about it frequently. All I’m saying is, why would he talk to journalists about this? This is supposed to be a secret. Would you disclose, if you have a problem with another country, and our problem is Kashmir, would you make a statement like that if you are the army chief? No, you wouldn’t say that. You would say, “We are ready to defend our country.” Even if you can’t, but you would say that. So, all I’m saying is for an army chief to make a statement, what more can I say?
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: So, moving on from India, let’s pivot back to our friends and allies. Now, of course, you had very warm ties with regional leadership, with [Former Prime Minister of Malaysia] Mahathir, of course, with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan. You’ve made a lot of friends especially in the OIC community. But two or three things. Firstly, they say that the moment Imran Khan lost the Americans was the day after the Taliban took over when he went to a hotel in Islamabad and said, “Oh, the Afghans have broken the shackles of slavery.” I know that was rhetorical, you’ve commented on this before, but two days later… your words were in the Wall Street Journal and that’s how you were perceived. But moving beyond that, they also say here, there are assessments that you lost the confidence of the Chinese. You lost the confidence of the Saudis.
Early on in your tenure, Razak Dawood, your senior advisor, said, “We’re not happy with the lack of transparency with CPEC, nor is the Skipper.” He said that. Then he rolled that back. Then, of course, you miffed the Saudis for a quick minute when they refused to back up Pakistan with the OIC, admonishing Kashmir Article 370. You threatened the Saudis that, “I’m going to have my own OIC. I’m going to have my own meeting on Kashmir. Take a walk.” And the Saudis rolled back a bunch of loans, which they were going to [grant]. The larger question is: Imran Khan was on a rampage. He managed to upset the Americans. Of course, he’d shot down an Indian plane while he was at it. Those are the tasks of the job, hazards of the job, but also the Saudis and the Chinese? “Is there anyone,” they say, “that he didn’t miff?” How do you take that?
IMRAN KHAN: Well, first, the Americans. I mean, this thing was completely taken out of context. I was speaking in Urdu and then they translated it, and because the US was hurting at the time, that whole drama, which I actually don’t blame President Biden, because how was he expected to know that three hundred thousand Afghan troops would give up without a fight? And so, it collapsed so quickly, and when President Ghani left Kabul, the whole thing collapsed so there was chaos. So, I could see that the US, they were in shock and awe of what happened. They were taken by complete surprise, and they didn’t know how to react. So, I could see they were hurting, and this one comment would be misconstrued because I was talking about mental colonialism.
But the thing is, I mean, I was always right about Afghanistan. I kept saying for years that, look, firstly, your idea of victory no one quite understands. Is it either liberate Afghan women or bring democracy? I mean, such a vague idea of victory. But then there was never going to be a military solution. Anyone who knows Afghan history… So, I think that maybe they took that as anti-American, because if you are from a weaker country and you criticize the US foreign policy, you’re immediately dubbed as anti-American. I was just simply because anyone who knows the history of Afghanistan and we knew the whole Soviet adventure in Afghanistan, we knew where it was going to be headed. Anyway, I think the US was feeling very vulnerable and hurt and I think that’s why. But that’s not the reason why the US administration disliked me. I think there were other reasons.
They blamed me for going to Russia, for instance. Now, the Russian trip was organized by the foreign office. They’d been asking for months for my trip to Russia. They wanted to mend the relationship and the army chief wanted me to go there, the service chiefs, because they wanted to buy hardware from Russia. So how would I know that I arrived in Russia and the next morning they invaded Ukraine? I mean, how was I supposed to know? That was held against me.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: I mean, it was a pretty tenuous time.
IMRAN KHAN: Let me just be clear. This idea that Saudis were upset, the Chinese were upset, it is so ridiculous. Who says so? Because my government, the vote of [no] confidence came on the 7th or 8th of March. On the 20th or 21st of March, this was the second time Pakistan hosted a foreign minister’s OIC meeting—second time in four months. Before that, it was fourteen or fifteen years ago Pakistan had hosted a meeting. A meeting of the OIC cannot take place without the Saudis’ agreement. So why would they agree to, just before I’m leaving power in two months, three months, two OIC meetings? And, secondly, the Chinese foreign minister came as a special guest. Why would he come if the Chinese were not happy?
So, this whole myth that I had upset, who was behind this? Guess who was promoting these myths? Because compare the foreign policy in my time to what is happening right now, Pakistan today is totally isolated. I mean, it doesn’t even feature anywhere. In our time, Pakistan was being taken seriously. And I’m telling you, this relationship between Iran and Saudi, on behest of MBS, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, I went to Iran to speak to them. Remember, there were tensions at the time—some missile attack had taken place—so the Saudi prince sent me to Iran and he wanted me to bring down the tensions. And so I played my part. And even on Yemen, I mean, Yemen, we tried to end this war and play our role in it and this is because the Saudis and the Iranians asked us. So, this idea that we were isolated and I had upset friends is just total nonsense.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Right. Well, thanks for that. But the reports about your reservations about CPEC [China Pakistan Economic Corridor] precede all of this. They go way back. The reports about you threatening a secondary meeting, an alternative meeting, when the Saudis didn’t back you up on Kashmir after Article 370 via the OIC. You’re right about the fact that you have hosted… multiple meetings of the OIC. You’re right about the fact that you have hosted meetings, multiple meetings of the OIC. You did mend those fences, yes, I will give you that, eventually towards the end of your tenure.
But in the early part of your tenure, they said he was just being a cowboy. He was shooting from all cylinders and just going all out. And that may have been why some of these people are quite silent today about what’s going on with you, your party, and your country.
IMRAN KHAN: Countries never interfere. I know, I was in power for three and a half years. I know that countries never interfere in other countries’ businesses. Never. This hardly ever happens. Only thing they should talk about are human rights. But normally, I mean, it’s just not done. I mean, unless it is your country, which you don’t have good relationship with. So, the US would talk about Hong Kong or Uyghurs.
But I mean India, when they clearly violated international law in Kashmir and put them in a open prison, they basically put a curfew in Kashmir. I mean, did any of the big power, Western power, criticize India for it? No. No one said anything. Some UN human rights organizations spoke against it, but none of the Western countries said anything against India.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Let’s move on. Let’s take it in-house. We need to start wrapping up as well. But let’s be introspective about the famous “same page” with the military …. There are dozens of examples of the “same-pagedness” as it was called famously, from giving the military so much space in the affairs of the country, to even, I would say the highlight is really General Bajwa’s extension, number one. And then number two, allowing Nawaz Sharif to leave the country.
I’m assuming you’ve said this before, but I would like to hear you again. When did the “same page” change? When did the same page stop? When you were playing ball consistently, what was it that just the “same page” just ran out of space and you ran out of ink. What happened?
IMRAN KHAN: Look, first of all, let’s understand one thing. The military has been in power directly or indirectly for seventy-five years. So let there be no illusion about this. So, either they’re directly in power or indirectly.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Sure.
IMRAN KHAN: And they’re entrenched. So, they’re entrenched. Now, when I became the prime minister, it is wrong to say that the army supported me or they rigged the elections, because they actually rigged the election for Nawaz Sharif in 2013, when we asked for just four constituencies out of 133 to open them up, they refused. And when they were opened up, the election was rigged.
In our case, we offered from day one, I said, open the elections. So, the army didn’t oppose me, but they didn’t rig the elections for us. But I knew from day one that I had to work with them. And so for a while, the working relationship with army means army chief, really. There’s no democracy in the army. It’s just one man. So it worked well in the beginning. The problem started when I gave him the extension. And I admit it was the biggest blunder I made. I admit. And I was actually ambushed in this. I mean, it is a long story. But anyway…
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: I’d really like to hear it Khan… because this story is the story of our country at this point. Isn’t it? Well, Imran Khan comes in on a mandate where he can do pretty much everything he wants. And yet he gives a man of, well, limited reputation an extension, then allows his rival, Nawaz Sharif, his lifelong rival, to leave even though you came in on the platform of justice.
IMRAN KHAN: So let me clarify. We had just come in, I was due and the army as an institution is the only institution that works in Pakistan because it’s intact. All other institutions when I took power were in a terrible condition. I mean, they had been tampered with, politicized, they weren’t working properly. So, if you wanted things done, you got it done through the Army. I mean, I’m talking about, say for instance, COVID-19. We wanted logistics support. We wanted the whole country to—data from all the hospitals. I’m just giving an example. And the best way we could do was the army. It would immediately get us all the data.
So, in that sense, so it worked. It worked. We did well in the beginning. The only problem is after the extension what happened, there was a different General Bajwa. And so the problem, what I faced with them is that my whole platform was bringing the powerful under the law. So, rule of law is what I started off with twenty-seven years back. And when I tried to bring the powerful under the law, I discovered that unless General Bajwa wanted it, I couldn’t do it. So because NAB, the [national] accountability bureau was controlled by him. So, we had no control over what was going on. All these guys who are now in the government, they would blame me for their corruption cases. But we inherited all the corruption cases.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: But Khan-
IMRAN KHAN: But what was happening-
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Didn’t you let the fox into the house?
IMRAN KHAN: Let me first complete. So, because he controlled the accountability Bureau, I could not bring the powerful under the law because I was helpless, and he didn’t want to, because he was already dealing with them. So “one page” was good, it went on. And then I worked with him. I realized that if he didn’t want accountability, I was stuck. But our main thing, priority at the time was the economy.
Because we had two years of COVID everywhere the world, the impact of COVID-19 and the commodity super cycle. So, the whole concentration was there. And so as far as the economy went, we did the best economic performance in the last seventeen years. Our last two years we grew at almost 6 percent. But General Bajwa at some point decided to change horses. I didn’t betray him. He decided to change horses. And he is the one who pulled the rug [from] under my feet.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: But I’m personally shocked that for a man who used to threaten to walk away from his own team, if he wasn’t allowed to pick it, if he wasn’t allowed to literally pick his own men in his own cricket squad—they’ve written about this; you have written about this—someone who is so adamant about control, about his vision, about his strategy when it’s interfered with is now saying that he was new, he was inexperienced. And I understand the same page about COVID, I’ll give you that, for example, right.
But I don’t understand the “same page” about pretty much every contract going to the FWO or tons of generals going on as ambassadors or even a colonel running PTV. I mean you had the wherewithal, you had the manpower, you had the mandate, and yet you just kept on ceding them space and eventually ended up in a situation where you led the fox into the hen house. So, is there regret? Is there regret about your decision making?
IMRAN KHAN: Well, the only thing, when I look back, and I’ve said this before, if I had to go back again, I would not… Bearing in mind that I wanted to bring in reforms, main reform is rule of law. Bringing the powerful under the law, which has never happened in Pakistan’s history before. The powerful are above law and the masses have no access to justice. So that was my main theme. I discovered that unless you have a powerful mandate by the public, the public must give you a strong mandate. You must have a strong government. Only then can you implement your reform program. Unfortunately, I had a weak coalition government. So, the moment I used to go after the powerful, the problem used to be to keep my majority intact. And we could only keep our majority intact by telling the army, the ISI, look, you must make sure that they come, my members appear for voting.
This is what happened. With hindsight, I should have immediately called for elections and if I had not got a good enough mandate, I should have stayed out. Because it is not possible. If you want a reform program and to take on the big mafias, you cannot do it if you have a coalition with government, with a thin majority, you can’t do it. So that is the mistake I made. And that’s why I became more and more dependent on the army chief because he could get a budget passed because they have the clout. It’s exactly what’s happening right now. If the military withdraws support, this coalition would fall apart in days.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: So, speaking of current affairs, coalitions, electoral politics, Khan Sahib, leadership is the undergirding of all of this. And currently I see the PTI’s flag right behind you. And the PTI is a shadow today of what it was just a few weeks ago. People have left in droves. Just this morning you were kind enough to send me a story by the New York Times about how people are leaving in droves. They’re being forced to leave in droves. Some of your old school, old guard has stuck around. Most of your “electables,” of your new guard who you praised so highly, you gave them high office and appointments, they’ve left. And yet, this brings me to the question of leadership where again, a man who was famous for his captaincy in the cricket field, who used to claim that, “Listen, trust me, I can put together the right unit. This is what they pay me for. This is what I do”—today, has been left by much of his unit. Which then makes me compare the plight of the PTI today to the plight of, for example, the PML-N in the late 1990s where they were under pressure too after a military coup. But nobody left Nawaz Sharif in the droves, in the mass exodus that we are seeing with the PTI. Does that say something about your captaincy and your leadership? Or does that say something about the weak structure of the PTI?
IMRAN KHAN: Let me, let me first tell you exactly what happened because I was in the opposition in 2002. The entire PML-N became PML-Q. So, there were only ten members left. What are you talking about there? Nawaz Sharif was left by his entire party, which formed government under PML-Q. So, I mean, I’m just correcting you.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: They went through a couple of years of jail, some of them, not like a couple of weeks.
IMRAN KHAN: No, no, it’s not true. There were five or ten people who went to jail this time. I mean, what people have gone through now, they’ve been thrown in jails and they’ve been shut in these cells with a lot of people and dead cells. I mean, their businesses have been destroyed. They’ve been warned. I mean their families have been threatened. This has never happened in this country before. The way they have been making people leave my party, it’s unprecedented. But Wajahat, today PTI is stronger than ever in its history. PTI today is the strongest party in Pakistan’s history. Why? Because PTI has the biggest vote bank. It doesn’t matter if people leave you. If “electables” leave you, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just give you an example of Punjab. We gave almost four hundred tickets in the Punjab election. Punjab is 60 percent Pakistan’s population. So I gave four hundred tickets. Only forty people have left. And do you know what about the rest? They’re all hiding. None of them are staying in their houses. Their houses are broken in, the relatives are picked up, their businesses are shut. And yet out of four hundred, only forty people have left. Why aren’t they leaving? Because they all realize that the moment they leave the party, it’s the end of their politics. Because the people in this country have never stood with any party as they stand with PTI today. Which is why you have the whole government machinery, the whole intelligence agencies, all institutions [have] one-point agenda somehow to dismantle PTI. And they’re failing because the vote bank is growing rather than the vote bank shrinking. The vote bank of PTI is growing, which is why people are not leaving us.
The vote bank of PTI is growing, which is why people are not leaving us. You would imagine, it’s never happened here before. My sisters’ houses, the police has gone in there. They picked up the servants when the son was there. One sister has a huge corruption case thrown on her. She was not even in government. So, my house, my wife, they have cases against my wife. They’ve gone after everyone. So, they’re doing this to all ticket holders. Despite all that, people are not leaving the party. Only a few people you see have left.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: But Khan-Saab, they’re saying you tried to trigger a coup. They’re saying you’ve been in touch with the former army officers. They were saying you tried to divide the ranks of the world’s fifth-largest military. Which begs the question, have you been in touch with, for example, General Faiz? I know you were in touch with General Bajwa even after your ouster, and you said so accordingly. Which surprises me, by the way. The same man who kicks you out, you end up trying to negotiate with him. But are you in touch with General Faiz? Have you been in touch with military brass? Because that’s what they say. They say, “This man is trouble and he thinks the rules don’t apply to him. And his party tweets, that he’s a red line. Why can’t he turn up to court like everybody else has since Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Pakistani or Indian Muslim leaders have suffered court cases and have gone to jail. What’s so special about Imran Ahmad Khan Niazi?” That’s what they say.
IMRAN KHAN: Special…? I have 160 court cases, 160 cases against me, and I do nothing but most of my time is going from one court to the other to get bail. Tomorrow again, nineteen cases tomorrow, I’m trying to get bail. nineteen cases. It’s never happened in our history before. No political leader has ever had… At the age of seventy, he does not have one criminal case. And suddenly in the last few months, he has 170 cases, 160 cases. People have known me for fifty years. They’ve just slapped a murder case on me. People know me. So, I repeat. The only time I couldn’t go to attend the courts was when I was shot and I was housebound and they knew about it. They knew my reports. I had my leg broken, so therefore I couldn’t attend. But since I’ve been recovered, I attend every case.
Now, I have never, the only people I knew in the army, one was General Faiz, the other one was General Bajwa. Faiz because he was the ISI chief. I had to deal with him. General Bajwa because he was the army chief. I dealt with Bajwa after I was ousted only for the sake of Pakistan because I wanted to ask him, “Where are we heading? Because at the moment we are going nowhere.” The country is going into a black hole. They have no policy. The only policy is to get rid of Imran Khan. That’s no policy. I mean, what is the future of Pakistan? The only reason I met General Bajwa was look the only way ahead of free and fair elections, which will bring political stability and that then will bring economic stability. Right now, we have the worst economic indicators in our history.
The country’s going down, we are heading towards default. We already have 38 percent inflation. We are heading towards hyperinflation. So, my talks with only for the country and trying to make him understand that unless you have elections, you will not have political stability. General Faiz, I might have spoken to him three times since I left government and since he was not the army chief…I mean the ISI chief. This is all nonsense. They’re just trying to get rid of me because for some reason the current army chief has decided that whatever happens, I cannot come into power.
So, they’re throwing all these things on me. I mean, I go to be… army court. These military courts. The reason why these military courts have been set up is to try me because in civil courts there’s no way any of these bogus cases can throw me in jail. So that’s why all this is going on. These conspiracy theories, I don’t know anyone in the army. I don’t know any of the generals. I had no business for them. It was not my job to know—except the ones I was dealing with. I don’t know the other generals.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Khan-Saab, about the current army chief. You singled him out after you were released from prison. You-last
IMRAN KHAN: Last question please, Wajahat. I have to go. It’s eleven o’clock.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Sure, Khan-Saab. Thank you. So, then I’ll compound this question with another question. I’ll give you one and a half questions. One, you singled out the army chief. You said, “It’s not about the army, it’s about one man.” What’s the problem here with him? Was it because you sacked him when you were prime minister, when he was ISI Chief. Does it go back to that episode? That’s question number one. What’s the beef here between you and General Asim Munir? I’d like to know, because you’ve said that there’s beef, so that’s question one. And then question two, Khan-Saab before I let you go. What would you do differently? What would you do differently if you were in a time machine today, and you were allowed to go back to August 2018. What would Imran Ahmad Khan Niazi do differently?
IMRAN KHAN: Firstly, it’s not about me or General Asim. It’s about Pakistan. I mean, I have no personal thing against him. He clearly has something, I don’t know, which is why I offered to meet and hold dialogue and not now, since he came to power, since he became the army chief, I have been since then saying that, look, it’s about Pakistan, it’s not about us. So, I need to understand why this whole country is… “There’s only one mission, get rid of Imran. He should not come into power.”
So, what alternative have they got? I mean, maybe he can convince me that I’m so bad for the country, but there is some other plan which will be good for the country. At the moment, there is no other plan. There’s only one plan. So that’s why I wanted to meet him. And remember, it’s not about us. It’s not whether I like him or he likes me. It’s about the country. And the country is going down rapidly. People are losing hope in the country. Almost a million professionals, quality people, have left the country in the last few months. There’s a flight of capital. So that’s my point.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: But I must interject. Why did you fire him when he was ISI chief, Khan Sahib? What happened?
IMRAN KHAN: Well, there were issues. I had issues with him and so therefore I couldn’t work with him. But that’s in the past. I have no issue with him. So, I think right now it’s not about personal likes and dislikes. It’s about the country. Now, secondly, if I had to go back again to 2018, I would’ve called for elections. I would’ve dissolved the parliament and gone for general elections again and only taken power—
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: When you were asked for an extension, at that point, when would you have asked for elections again, I’m just trying to figure out—
IMRAN KHAN: No, straightforward, straightaway. I mean, had I known how difficult it was to implement your program… We inherited the biggest current account deficit in our history. So, the country was bankrupt. So, we inherited two big deficits, the fiscal deficit and the current account deficit. So, the economy was in shambles, and we were the first time in government. And here I had this ambitious program of rule of law to bringing the mafias under control. There was no way I could have done it with a coalition government with a thin majority. It was just not possible. So, with hindsight, I should have immediately called for elections and only taken government if I had a substantial majority.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: And moving on this week, you are faced with a lot of court charges. You’re going to Islamabad, you’re going to Baluchistan, a sensitive area, an insecure area. Do you still fear that you might be targeted, your life might be targeted, Imran Khan?
IMRAN KHAN: Yes, I do. Well, the government, I mean the interior minister has said my life is a danger. I mean, he said from foreign agencies, but, actually, it’s the government itself who were… I mean there were two assassination attempts on me. One was on the 3rd of November last year. One was on 18th of March in Islamabad. So, will there be another one? I think there’s a strong possibility because they would imagine that even if I am put in jail, which I just know that in the next two weeks they’ll find somewhere to put me in jail. So, they would worry that even if I’m in jail, my party would still win. So, I think they’d be thinking of the final solution. So mentally, I’m prepared—
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: I’m sorry-—
IMRAN KHAN: —that anything could happen.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Imran, did you just say that you’re mentally prepared to be killed? Is that what you just said to me?
IMRAN KHAN: No, I’m mentally prepared that anything could happen. I mean, someone who’s faced two assassination attempts is going to be prepared that there’s a possibility because the same reasons, the reasons are still there when they tried to kill me twice before. The reason is that the party’s popular will win the next election. So, as long as that reason is there, they could try again. So, in that sense, mentally, I mean I have overcome the fear of dying. I feel that I should be prepared for everything. But jail, I know in the next two weeks they’ll put me in jail because there’s so many cases. All they have to do is cancel one bail and I’ll be inside.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Imran Ahmad Khan Niazi—
IMRAN KHAN: Okay, Wajahat
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Good luck. Thank you, sir.
IMRAN KHAN: Thank you.
WAJAHAT SAEED KHAN: Stay safe.
IMRAN KHAN: Thank you. Okay.
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