Imran Khan became Pakistan’s prime minister through a most unusual route. As he explained in an interview on Sunday night, Khan was for decades the nation’s most famous cricketer, before transitioning into the world of philanthropy, building hospitals and supporting universities. From there, he moved into politics, founding a party — the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI — and sweeping into power in 2018. But he had a slim majority, and was ousted in a no-confidence vote by 2022.
Since then, he and his party have been the target of a relentless crackdown by the nation’s military, which has ruled the country directly or indirectly for decades.
Khan was arrested on May 9, 2023, by the military, and held for four days before the Supreme Court ruled his detention illegal. Protests erupted nationwide, some turning violent, and the military establishment responded by arresting most of Khan’s senior leadership and forcing them to resign from the party under pressure. Thousands of rank-and-file party workers have also been jailed.
Khan, meanwhile, is holed up in his home in Lahore, sifting through some 150 charges of corruption and other offenses that have been leveled at him — charges he and his supporters dismiss as politically motivated. Yet Khan remains a popular political figure heading into elections that are scheduled for October.
He joined me last night to discuss his career, the political crisis facing Pakistan, and his diminishing hope for a negotiated resolution. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation; the transcript has been edited for clarity. You can hear the interview on my podcast Deconstructed.
In the interview, Khan urged the United States to speak out in defense of the rule of law, democracy, and other Western values under threat in Pakistan. A State Department spokesperson, shown the comments, said that “our message has been clear and consistent on this. We support the peaceful upholding of constitutional and democratic principles, including respect for human rights. We do not support, whether it’s in Pakistan or anywhere else around the world, one political party over another. We support broader principles, including the rule of law and equal justice under the law.”
Khan, in the interview, also speculated that the U.S. had turned on him because of his skepticism of the global war on terror and due to a misperception that he had aligned Pakistan with the Taliban. “On the war on terror and the Taliban,” the State Department spokesperson said, “the United States and Pakistan have a shared interest in ensuring the Taliban live up to the commitments that they have made — that terrorist groups that may be active in Afghanistan are no longer able to threaten regional stability.”
Ryan Grim: Since you left office, you’ve been the target of an assassination attempt and a nationwide crackdown on your party, the PTI. Last month while sitting in a courtroom, you were hauled out and jailed by the military. For American viewers who haven’t been following this closely, can you tell us what happened that day and what led up to it?
Imran Khan: I had gone there to get bail, and before leaving my house, I had recorded a video message saying, “Look if you want to arrest me, just bring a warrant and then take me.” There was a huge problem the 12th of March. There was a 24-hour attack on my house … which was illegal because all I had to do was give a surety bond that I would appear in court, and they couldn’t arrest me. But they refused to take the bond, and they kept attacking my house, and it was an awful situation. A lot of people got injured; a lot of our workers got injured trying to stop them from abducting me.
So before leaving for Islamabad, I gave a statement, “Don’t do this again.” … I mean, it was a commando action. They beat up everyone who was in that registry office in the High Court. My [inaudible] were hit on the head, bleeding. I was then taken by all these commandos, really — they were there supposed to be Rangers, but they looked really scary. And then I was taken in jail.
“The entire senior leadership is in jail. The only way they can get out of jail is if they say that they’re leaving my party.”
The reaction was always going to be against the military. It was abduction, and later the Supreme Court ruled that it was unlawful. So there was this reaction in the streets. And as a result of that reaction, this crackdown has taken place where over 10,000 of my workers already in jail. Anyone to do with my party is picked up on a daily basis. And the rest of the party’s in hiding. The entire senior leadership is in jail. The only way they can get out of jail is if they say that they’re leaving my party.
RG: Now, The Intercept recently reported that the military has ordered news outlets across the country not to cover you at all. How effective has that ban been? Have you heard directly from the media about those orders? What’s the effect been on Pakistan public opinion?
IK: Well, the ban was [there] ever since I was ousted from power. And the then-army chief admitted afterward that it was him who thought I was dangerous for the country, and he engineered that conspiracy to get me out. So since then, most TV channels weren’t allowed to show me. And there were a couple of stations that would show me. And as a result, their ratings went very high. So about three, four months back, they went after those two channels, they shot one of them, they put the head of the channel in jail, the channel called BOL [News], the chief executive was put into jail. The channel then stopped showing me, and both the channels which were showing me, stopped showing me. No live coverage at all. This went to another level. Now my name is not allowed to be mentioned on television, on any electronic media or print media.
“My name is not allowed to be mentioned on television, on any electronic media or print media.”
RG: In the aftermath of your ouster, you suggested that the United States likely played some role in your removal or approved it. But you seem to have kind of downplayed that suggestion since then; why is that? And what do you think was the primary driver of your removal?
IK: On the 6th of March 2022, there was a meeting between the Pakistani ambassador and the U.S. Under Secretary of State Don Lu. In that meeting, the meeting was recorded, and a cipher was sent to the Foreign Office and me. In the cipher, it said that Donald Lu [was] telling the ambassador that Imran Khan had to be removed as prime minister in a vote of no confidence; otherwise, there will be consequences to Pakistan. The next day, 7th of March, was the vote of no confidence. So at the time, I thought it was really a U.S.-led conspiracy. Already, the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan was meeting those people who then defected from my party. So the U.S. Embassy was already meeting these people, the ones who jumped ship first. And then the moment the vote of no confidence came, then there were about 20 people who deserted my party, and the government fell.
At the time, I thought it was U.S.-led. Later on, I discovered that it was the army chief, who actually fed the U.S. — he had a lobbyist in the U.S. called [former Pakistan ambassador to the U.S.] Husain Haqqani, hired by my government without me knowing it, who was actually telling the U.S. that I, Imran Khan, was anti-American and actually, the army chief was pro-American. [Haqqani told The Intercept and other news outlets that Khan’s claim is false.] So later on, we discovered that it was actually engineered from here because I had a perfectly good relationship with the Trump administration. So I couldn’t work out what had gone wrong. But then we discovered that it was the army chief who actually engineered this feeling that I was anti-American, in the U.S.
RG: What do you think did go wrong? If you could go back to 2018 and give yourself a few pieces of advice just after your election, what would you tell yourself to do differently or nothing at all?
IK: I would have gone back to the public. If I had not got a big mandate, you cannot make reforms. And I would not have taken government because what subsequently turned out was, I just could not bring the powerful under the law — and the powerful mafias that control Pakistan for so many years. I did not have the strength. They would undermine me. They would weaken my party. They would approach my party members. So I was always trying to keep my government together, and so that was the biggest mistake. And then I became over-reliant on the army, on the army chief, because the army is the most organized institution in Pakistan. It’s entrenched. I mean, it’s ruled directly or indirectly for almost 70 years. So I became more reliant on them, on the army chief. And the army chief was not interested in rule of law. He was not [inaudible] the powerful making money and siphoning money out of the country. So I failed. So that’s what I would have done differently.
RG: You were criticized during your tenure as prime minister for cracking down on dissent and for suppression of free speech. As you look at what’s now happening to you, do you feel differently about the way that you approach dissent?
IK: Now talking about the media, you cannot compare what is going on right now. I mean, you just have to look back: Our government was criticized by the media more than any other government. We didn’t even have a honeymoon. And it’s because the powerful media also is in the hands of the powerful, the vested interests who did not want to change. So the moment I would go for change, they would attack me. So firstly, the media was completely free. I mean, what is happening now you can’t compare. They’re shutting down media houses. One of our best investigative journalists was hounded out of Pakistan and then assassinated in Kenya. Today, the second best investigative journalist: now disappeared for 17 days, no one knows where he is. And then some of the top anchors or journalists would disappear and be mistreated and then beaten up. This sort of thing has never happened in my time. And now, of course, there is total censorship, we are back to the days of military dictatorship. But [Pervez] Musharraf’s dictatorship doesn’t even compare to what’s going on right now.
RG: And is there anything concrete that you would urge the Biden administration or the United States to do to defend democracy now in Pakistan?
IK: What I do think that the Biden administration must speak out are what are the professed Western values: democracy, constitutionalism, rule of law. Custodial torture is banned everywhere, which is going on in Pakistan right now, as I speak. My people have been subjected to torture. Our senator was tortured. One of my staff, he was picked up and tortured. So speak out against custodial torture, but most of all, fundamental rights. … So that’s all we expect: The U.S. being the guardian of Western values, they should just speak out about what their professed values are. The same things when they talk about China and when they talk about Russia, what’s happening in Hong Kong. I mean, much worse is happening right now in Pakistan.
RG: How were you treated during your detention?
IK: I was [detained for] four days, I wasn’t mistreated. I was just completely shut off from what was going on. I didn’t even know what was happening. All the street protests and the few buildings — there was arson in these buildings — I knew nothing about it until I was produced in front of the Supreme Court. But I wasn’t mistreated. I mean, I was mistreated in the way I was picked up and then taken into custody in that time, but once I was there, no, there was no mistreatment.
RG: Were you interrogated? Were there any any threats, direct or veiled, made about your future role in Pakistani politics?
IK: You know, this country knows me for 50 years. I mean, for 20 years, I was a leading sportsman in this country. And cricket is the biggest sport, and I was captain for 10 years. So I was in the media for a long time. And then I went into philanthropy and built the biggest charitable institutions, which are cancer hospitals, and the university, so people know me for a long time. They know that I’m not going to back down. But what they’re doing is — they have clearly stated to me, the establishment, that whatever happens, “You’re not going to be allowed to get back into power.”
So what they’re doing now is, they are dismantling the party. But dismantling the biggest political party, the only federal party in Pakistan, is dismantling a democracy. And actually, that’s what’s going on. All the democratic institutions, the judiciary. I mean, the judiciary today is totally impotent in stopping this violation of fundamental rights. We went to the Supreme Court. According to the Constitution, the election in Punjab — the biggest province, which is 60 percent of Pakistan —was supposed to be held on the 14th of May. The government refused. So I mean, even the Supreme Court orders are not listened to. The judges give people bail, the police fix them up on some other cases. So this total violation of fundamental rights which is going on, I think this is — it’s all an attempt to weaken me and my party to the point that we will not be able to contest the elections. Because all the opinion polls show that we will win a massive majority in elections. Out of the 37 by-elections, my party has swept 30 of them, despite the establishment helping the government parties. So therefore, they know that in a free and fair election, we will just sweep. Hence, all these efforts are being made to completely dismantle my party and weaken it to the point that it will not be able to contest elections.
RG: And this is a dark moment for your country, for your party, as you said, and for you yourself personally. But I’m curious: What are you looking forward to? In a best-case scenario, what’s the path out of this crisis?
IK: It’s like a crossroads. One road is leading back to the bad old days of military dictatorship. Because that means, you know, we will regress the whole movement for democracy, which gradually evolved over a period of time. Our media really struggled valiantly for their freedom, and we had one of the freest medias. And then our judiciary was always subservient to the executive. But in 2007, [it] started a movement called the “Lawyer’s Movement,” and for the first time the judiciary asserted its independence. So the whole pillars of democracy now are being rolled back. The whole evolution, the steady move toward a democratic country is now all at stake. So either we allow this to go where it is going, an emerging military dictatorship. The other is, you know, we all try and all the democratic forces get together and strive for getting back to rule of law, democracy, and free and fair elections.
RG: And as you confront this potential long term military dictatorship, how does it make you think back on your own support of the military and the coup of Pervez Musharraf, or having the military’s indirect support in your own election? Do you feel like there was a way to accomplish that without the military, or is Pakistan in a situation that reform is only possible through that institution?
IK: Well, you know, just to make a correction: Mine is the only party that was never manufactured by the military. People’s Party, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he served a dictator for eight years before he formed his party. The second party is [Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz]. The head of PMLN was actually nurtured by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship. I mean, he was a nonentity. So he was actually a product of his military dictatorship.
Mine is the only party for 22 years, from scratch I started, and actually broke through the two-party system. In the 2018 election, the army didn’t oppose me. But they didn’t help us in winning the election. The elections weren’t rigged, because it should be now obvious. Now despite the army, the establishment standing behind this government, we’ve swept 30 out of 37 by-elections. And all the opinion polls show that we are way ahead of everyone, almost 60 to 70 percent rating.
“Our thought process has evolved to the point now, where there’s a consensus in Pakistan that a bad democracy is better than a military dictatorship.”
And the other thing I want to say is, how is it different? When Ayub Khan, the first military dictator, took over, the majority of the population backed him, because at that time, we were very insecure and the army was the bastion of security. When Zia-ul-Haq deposed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the second military dictator, half the population supported him. Half the vote was for Bhutto, but half the vote went against him. When Gen. Musharraf wound up our democracy in 1999, he had 80 percent rating in Pakistan, because he came on an anti-corruption platform. But this is a unique time in Pakistan: Almost the entire country is standing now for democracy. There are no takers for military dictatorship anymore. So it’s a unique situation, because our thought process has evolved to the point now, where there’s a consensus in Pakistan that a bad democracy is better than a military dictatorship.
RG: It feels like the military may see this crisis and this conflict as existential for them. That given what you’ve said, that the country, the population, has now turned against them, if they lose power, they may be pushed off the stage entirely. And so cornered, that may explain some of the reaction that you’re seeing. So how do you navigate that situation: Where they currently have you literally and politically surrounded, but if you escape, they face an existential crisis?
IK: Well, you see, when I was in … power, I recognized that, you know, you can’t wish away the military. You have to work with them, because they’ve been entrenched for 70 years, directly or indirectly, they’ve ruled this country. So I worked with the army chief. And apart from the fact that he would not, he did not understand what rule of law meant, or didn’t want to understand — apart from that, we had a working relationship. When and why he decided to pull the rug under my feet, I still don’t know, at what point he decided that I was dangerous to the country. But in the last six months he conspired to get rid of me, why he decided to change horses, because he backed the current prime minister who was facing massive corruption cases. And so why he decided to do that? I think, my hunch is that he wanted an extension, and the current prime minister had promised him that. I guess that’s the reason. But really, he’s the best — he would know why. I don’t know why.
So my point is the way Pakistan has been run — a hybrid system — it just cannot be run like this anymore. We are now facing the worst economic crisis in our history. And my point is that — I’ve offered talks to the military, to the army chief. But so far, there is no response. My point is that the hybrid system cannot work any longer. Because if a prime minister has the public mandate and the responsibility to deliver, he must have the authority. He can’t have a situation where he has the responsibility, but the authority, most of the authority lies with the military establishment.
So a new equilibrium has to be made. You have to have some sort of an arrangement, where certain issues just have to be delivered in Pakistan. Pakistan cannot do without rule of law now, because we cannot get out of this economic mess unless we attract investment. But investment from abroad, that just does not come to a country where people do not have confidence in their justice system and the legal system and their contract enforcement. And therefore, Pakistanis go and invest in Dubai and in other countries, but they don’t invest in this country. We have 10 million Pakistanis [overseas]. If we could only get 5 percent of them investing in this country, we wouldn’t have any problems. But they do not have faith in our justice system. We are, out of the 140 countries in the rule of law index, Pakistan is 129. So with that a lack of rule of law, I’m afraid the country’s survival is at stake. So hence, a new equilibrium has to be made with the military establishment.
RG: Final question: I know you said that you believe that the driver of your ouster was clearly internal and not driven from the outside. But I’m also curious, given that the U.S. expressed its private approval for you to be pushed out of office through a no confidence vote. I’m wondering what it was that you think drove the United States to that position. Do you think it had something to do with your willingness to work with the Taliban, after the Taliban took over in Afghanistan? Do you think it has something to do with the war in Ukraine? Or what is your read of the geopolitics that would have led the United States to go from supportive to willing to see you thrown out?
IK: Well, for a start, you know, the war — the Trump administration acknowledged that I was the one who consistently kept saying there was not going to be a military solution in Afghanistan. It’s because I know Afghanistan. I know the history. And the province, the Pashtun province: Remember Afghanistan is 50 percent Pashtun, but the Pashtun population is twice as much in Pakistan. And my province where I first got into power is the Pashtun province bordering Afghanistan. So I kept saying there would not be any military solution. Trump administration acknowledged it. And they finally — when he decided to do the withdrawal, he understood there was not going to be a military solution. But I think this was taken wrong by the Biden administration; they somehow thought I was critical of the Americans, and I was sort of pro-Taliban. It’s total nonsense. It’s just simply that anyone who knows the history of Afghanistan just knows that they have a problem with outsiders. So the same happened with the British in the 19th century, the Soviets in the 20th century. Exactly the same was happening with the U.S. But it’s just that no one knew that. And so I think that was one reason.
Secondly, I was anti the war on terror in Pakistan. Because remember, Pakistan — Pakistan, first of all, in the ’80s, created the mujahideen, who were conducting a guerrilla warfare against the Soviets. So it was from Pakistani soil. And we told them that doing jihad — jihad means fighting foreign occupation — you’re heroes, we encouraged it.
Now come 10 years later, once the Soviets had left, the U.S. lands in Afghanistan. So I kept saying, look, let’s stay neutral. The same people who all the groups you have told and all along the border belt of Afghanistan, the Pashtuns, you’ve told that this was heroism to fight foreign occupation. How are you going to tell them that now that the Americans are there, it’s terrorism? So that’s what happened. The moment we joined the U.S. war on terror, they turned against us. 80,000 Pakistanis died in Afghanistan. No ally of U.S. has taken such heavy casualties as Pakistan did. And in the end, we couldn’t help the U.S. either, because we were trying to save ourselves. There were 40 different militant groups, at one point, working against the government. Islamabad was like under siege, there were suicide attacks everywhere. So all investment dried up in Pakistan, we had no investment coming in the country. Our economy tanked.
So I think my opposition to the war on terror also was perceived as being anti-American, which it’s not, it’s just being nationalistic about your own country. And with the Taliban, when the Taliban took over, frankly, whichever government is in Afghanistan, Pakistan has to have good relationship with them. We have a 2,500-kilometer border with them. We have 3 million Afghan refugees here. And when the [Ashraf] Ghani government, before that I went to Afghanistan, Kabul, to meet him. I invited him to Pakistan, we tried our best to have good relationship with them. So whoever is in power in Afghanistan, Pakistan has to have good relationship, because at one point, during the previous government, there were three different terrorist groups using Afghan territory to attack Pakistan — the ISIL, Pakistani Taliban, and the Baloch Liberation organization — three different groups were attacking us. So therefore, you need a government in Afghanistan, which would be helpful. So it was not pro-Taliban. It’s basically pro-Pakistan, as anyone who cares about his country would make those decisions.
RG: I know I said that was the last question, but I wanted to give the last word to you because every one of these interviews that you do now, with the posture of the military toward you, could be your last before an arrest or even worse. And so given that, is there any message broadly that you’d like to share, either with the United States or with the world?
IK: Well, you’re right. I mean, there’ve been not one but two assassination attempts on me. And a third one, which I preempted, luckily, and then there are 150 cases against me, although most of them are bogus cases. But now they’ve started military courts. And the military courts is just because the normal judiciary just gives me bail, because of the frivolous cases. Now, I think they will try me in a military court to jail me, so that I’m out of the way.
But the point is, it is not good for not just the region around Pakistan, not just for Pakistan. But I think, a country of 250 million people, it is very important that there’s stability here. Stability is only going to come through free and fair elections, because only a stable government with a public mandate then can start making the difficult decisions, reforms, structural changes, to actually get Pakistan back on the track.
Any weak government, which does not have the support of the people, is going to struggle. So the need for Pakistan to be stable is free and fair elections, democracy, rule of law, constitutionalism. That’s the road for Pakistan toward stability. And where we are headed right now is exactly the opposite. And what the world can do is — and the Western world — speak about the values that are preached by them, which is exactly what we are trying to do, which is democracy and rule of law and fundamental rights, human rights. So everything is being violated right now. And while I think no other country can fix a country from within — it’s only we [who] can fix the country from within — but they can speak out of the violations that are going on in this country, of what the West professes to be their values.
Update: June 5, 2023, 8:14 p.m. ET
The piece has been updated to add State Department comment received after publication.