Understanding Imran

Published September 29, 2013

EVERYONE thinks Khan is nuts. Even folk in his party. Talk to the Taliban? It’s madness, mishegoss, lunacy.

Yet he persists, insists. Few have bothered to ask why though. Why fight the logic of rationality and the truth? Why be Taliban Khan? Why traverse the distance from appeaser to sympathiser to accomplice?

It starts from the beginning. When Imran started out in politics, he knew nothing about politics. He was out to the change the world, or at least his little corner of it, but he didn’t have the slightest clue how.

Unhappily for Khan, his opponents knew exactly what to do to neutralise the World Cup-winning, hospital-building, upstart politician who was a national hero.

In the political arena, Khan became the Jew-loving, secular playboy with children out of wedlock. Every time Khan wanted to talk about politics, his opponents wanted to talk about paternity tests.

It worked. Khan’s politics of opposition were drowned out by the jeering and rumours and salaciousness. His past had followed him into his future; old facts incompatible with new ambitions.

So Imran did the obvious thing: he set about converting Playboy Khan into Muslim Khan.

By owning religion, by embracing it and carrying a bright, burning torch for it, the godless secularist slowly inched towards safer terrain: the good Muslim.

It took years, but eventually the transformation was complete. Now, every time the mullah tried to shout him down, Khan could roar back.

His born-again credentials were impeccable, his defence of religion strident, his spiritual anchor unshakeable. Khan could get on with the business of politics freed from the distraction of the politics of religion.

Except, somewhere along the way, his re-education made him a believer. Of the personal religious side we can never know, but certainly of the intersection of politics and religion we do know.

If religion could be used to keep a man down, it could also be used to pull a man up. Khan, the victim of the intersection of politics and religion in the beginning, realised, once he had broken through to the other side, just how useful a tool it is to build support.

Folk wanted a new leader who could drag the country in a better direction, but folk had also become a bit more conservative over Khan’s lifetime. New Imran offered the perfect mix: a do-er who wore his religion on his sleeve.

That’s the first part of the evolution into Taliban Khan.

The second part is Khan’s Pakhtun roots: he’s just really, really into them now. He’s come to believe he knows what makes the Pakhtun mind tick, the carrots that appeal to it and the sticks that can work.

The one-time male chauvinist discovered ethnic chauvinism: Khan as a Pakhtun could tap into the Pakhtun psyche, which, for Khan, was the crucial step to understanding the Taliban phenomenon.

There is a deep irony here: for long, the state here has believed that the Pakhtuns could be kept in line, manipulated by one of two levers, nationalism and religion. But the state understood that they are alternating levers, never to be pressed at the same time.

Nationalism had to be discouraged because the Pakhtuns straddle the Durand Line and too much of Pakhtun nationalism could give them funny ideas about carving out a land for themselves.

But the other lever — religion — if pushed too far could create blowback of its own. See, the Taliban, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That’s also why there are still incurable conspiracy theorists out there who see the MMA government in KP followed by an ANP government as the state playing its old game of alternating between the religion/nationalism levers.

But Khan is different: he thinks he understands both, religion and nationalism, and wants to apply them both at the same time to his theory of reining in the TTP.

There is a third element in the evolution of Taliban Khan: ignorance. Yes, ignorance of a general kind he’s often accused of, but this particular ignorance is of a specific kind in a specific context.

What lines does Khan have open to the TTP? Who does he have access to, behind the scenes, through discreet and secure channels?

The Sharifs have shown how it’s done. Punjab has been kept relatively safe and away from immediate harm, folk have long suspected, because of their policy of buying off or co-opting militant threats.

But while the contours of that policy can be guessed, the specifics have been much harder to pin down — because the Sharifs are discreet about the behind-the-scenes, back-channel stuff.

Then Mauwiya, he of the Punjabi Taliban fame, let the cat out of the bag, jumping the gun on talks and earning himself a temporary punishment from TTP central.

Khan insists that talks are the only option, but who’s he got on the inside? Who’s the guy who can give Khan the inside track on what’s going on in the TTP, who’s up for talks, who isn’t, who to approach first, whom to be wary of?

Khan has no one. It started to become apparent during the election campaign: if the idea of talks and only talks was a scary enough position Khan had staked out, what was scarier was the realisation that Khan was only speaking to the TTP through his speeches and TV appearances.

After the election, it became clearer still: Khan and co approached various obvious interlocutors and asked several to help put the PTI in touch with the TTP.

Khan has no one on the inside. Which is almost as horrifying as the idea of talks and only talks: Khan not only doesn’t understand the enemy, he doesn’t even know who it is.

He doesn’t know because he doesn’t care. Because he thinks he knows what the real problem is.

Which has created a problem for everyone else: how to rein in Taliban Khan?

The writer is a member of staff.


Twitter: @cyalm



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