Imran Khan: ‘We need to talk to the Taliban. War is no solution’

The former cricket legend and opposition leader has been branded pro-extremist for his opposition to military action, he tells Omar Waraich in Islamabad

Islamabad

One year ago, Imran Khan was all the rage in Pakistan. As the 2013 general elections approached, there was great excitement around his campaign of “change”, on an anti-corruption platform that vowed to restore peace and prosperity to Pakistan.

Today, though, the former cricket legend and opposition leader is feeling the pressure that his surge in popularity brought.

His problem, his critics say, is that he is too soft on the Pakistani Taliban, at a time when the group is carrying out deadly attacks across the country.

For the past fortnight, a committee announced by the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has been meeting with the militants’ nominated interlocutors to try and hammer out a peace deal.

But those talks are now imperilled as the militants continue to carry out a wave of bombings. Peshawar, the capital of the north-west province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has seen attacks on cinemas, the home of a local peace committee leader, and on Thursday the Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing of 11 Pakistani policemen.

Mr Khan has long insisted that there is no military solution to the conflict and that further military offensives will only lead to more collateral damage, spark reprisal bombings in Pakistan’s main cities, and add to the already ruinous toll exacted on the country’s economy.

“I was against this war from 2001 onwards,” Mr Khan told The Independent, in an interview last week at his hilltop hacienda just outside Islamabad. “In 2004, in my speech to parliament I warned General Musharraf not to send the Pakistan army into Waziristan, because of the history of these tribal people.”

Former cricket legend and opposition leader Imran Khan at an election campaign rally last year Former cricket legend and opposition leader Imran Khan at an election campaign rally last year (Getty Images) Mr Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (Movement for Justice), insists that the only way out of the seven-year long conflict that has cost tens of thousands of Pakistani lives is through a lasting peace agreement.

Officially, it’s also the position of the government and other parties, but because Mr Khan has been the most vocal on the issue, he has stood out as a lightning rod for criticism.

“I’m against an operation in North Waziristan,” Mr Khan said, referring to plans for the Pakistan armed forces to strike what is seen as the most dangerous of its seven tribal areas along the Afghan border, home to a hornets’ nest of militants. “I think it’ll exacerbate the situation. My belief is that the best thing now is talks. The talks are mainly about disengaging from the American war.”

In Mr Khan’s view, the Pakistani Taliban was emboldened by a two-year campaign by the Pakistan army against them, which the militants saw as being carried out by Gen Musharraf at Washington’s behest. The militants, he said, “see the war as a jihad”.

“Jihad is what is supplying the recruits,” Mr Khan added. “The moment you disengage from the US war, the jihad narrative disappears. The moment that disappears, they don’t have recruits. You actually isolate the hardliners.”

Mr Khan compared his position on negotiations to the recent agreement signed between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Malaysian experience of taming a communist insurgency, and US efforts in 2010 to lure the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.

Mr Khan’s many critics concede that his view has been consistent. But many commentators and analysts also see it as “naive” and “too soft” on the Taliban. A common criticism is that Mr Khan angrily denounces US drone strikes and protests against them, but doesn’t have the same reaction when militants kill even more civilians in the bombing campaigns.

In a widely read article that went viral last week, the noted columnist Cyril Almeida argued that Mr Khan had used his fame, good looks, and charisma to give extremism an acceptable face.

“The problem with Khan,” Mr Almeida wrote, “the problem for all of us, is as simple as it’s ugly: he has mainstreamed extremism.”

For Mr Khan’s critics, the claim was given substance recently when the Taliban asked him to represent them at talks. Mr Khan declined the offer, and bristled at suggestions that he is indulgent of the Taliban.

“It’s because I’ve always stood for dialogue and said there’s no military solution,” he said. “There’s a powerful pro-war lobby here... Anyone calling for dialogue is being pushed into being called pro-Taliban.”

One area where he has won widespread praise is for his recent campaign against polio. Peshawar, the capital of the province his party governs, was identified by the WHO as the epicentre of polio in the region. Mr Khan and his volunteers have run a successful campaign of immunising hundreds of thousands in recent weeks against the backdrop of violent threats to all polio workers from the militants.

In Mr Khan’s view, the idea of the talks is to speak to the groups who are amenable to an accommodation with the Pakistani state, isolate the hardliners who are irreconcilable, and win over the “people of the tribal areas”. “Then you won’t need an operation,” he said. “You’ll just need a small commando [force] backing the people of the tribal areas, and they themselves will take care of the hardliners.”

“My worry about the operation is there are 700,000 people living there,” Mr Khan added. “There’s going to be massive collateral damage because they’ll be using tanks, guns, helicopters, artillery.”

If there is collateral damage, he believes, the people affected will turn against the Pakistani state. “Anyone losing a family member will seek revenge,” he said. “Revenge means joining the militants. It will strengthen militancy in Pakistan, and the Pakistan army will get bogged down there.”

The chances of success also appear slim to him. Last year, he said, he had a meeting with Mr Sharif and the then army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. “I had a special meeting with the army chief, and he said there’s a 40 per cent chance. You do not take a chance at 40 per cent. You must exhaust all possibilities first.”

But Mr Khan is also open to military action if the talks break down, as seems increasingly likely now. He said his fear was that militants hostile to talks will carry out bombings that will derail the process, as appears to have happened with the latest Karachi attack. “If the talks fail,” he said, “we still have the choice.”

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past