Imran Khan is a global superstar, in many ways the Ronaldo-cum-David Beckett of Cricket. He belongs to Pakistan's second largest most important ethnic group, the Pashtuns, or Pathans. He is Lahori-bred, Oxbridge educated, and the only Pakistani circket captain to bring home the world championship back in 1992. You might have never heard of him, but that is because no one in America plays cricket, and if you do: may God have mercy on you. It is fun, but I'd rather play rugby or football (any of the three). As a young, strapping Pathan (the Urdu word for Pashtun), Imran Khan was liberal, if not libertine in his faith. Like most South Asian Muslims, Islam was important to him and his personal identity, but the practice of the faith was far less so. He would have an evangelical awakening upon entering politics, much like George W. Bush did as well over the years.
Khan's politics are full of the contradictions and convictions my people, the Pathans, have become renowned for. Famous for his loyalty as well as his uncompromising stance on rooting out corruption in all its forms, he is still willing to cut a deal to forgive and forget or to compromise and meet in the middle, with political foes of every possible background. This shrewd ability to deal himself in and out of the high-stakes poker game of Pakistan without ending up dead.
And, life & death, are indeed, on the table. Five Pakistani heads of state and government have died while in office. Four of them met violent deaths, and the fifth was the founder of the country, M.A. Jinnah, who died after chain-smoking himself to death trying to convince his fellow Pakistanis that they did have something more in common than their revulsion for India.
Now back to the Khan. Pakistani politics is divided into three houses: the House of Bhutto, the House of the Punjaban, and the House of Khans. These three forces have dominated the country since the beginning.
The House of Bhutto
The Bhuttos are the liberal populists, leaning towards gradual democratic socialism for the country of 210 Million souls. However, much of the family has been decimated by a very anti-Bhutto military establishment. The first Bhutto to be prime minister, Z.A. Bhutto, was executed by the Punjabi-controlled military in the 1970s. The second, Benazir, was dismissed from office twice by behind the scenes military juntas for asking too many questions about military spending & having a brilliantly corrupt family - her husband was known as Mr. Ten Percent for taking 10% of every business deal in the country. He is also believed to have killed Benazir's more socialist brother on the streets of Karachi.
"Kabhi bhi naa Naach, Punjaban" - the Old Guard
The House of the Punjaban is more a collection of people with the same ethnic background than a family: Punjabis. Nearly every corruption scandal, declaration of military rule and unlawful state-sanctioned murder has taken place while a Punjabi sits upon the Iron Throne of Islamabad. They are the Ancien Regime of Pakistan, known as the "Maa-Baap" or "mother & father" for their desire to control and silence dissent like pair of watchful Desi Parents. The military establishment of Pakistan is largely made up of Punjabis, so even when a non-Punjabi is the chief of the general staff, they find themselves being directed or greatly influenced by...you guessed it, a Punjabi. For the Punjabi elite families that have a stranglehold on the Pakistani economy, Rule of Law is not their thing really, but Rule of Lakhs, meaning Rule of Millions (of Dollars/Rupees) is. The focus on economic growth over political stability and financial sobriety led to their loss of power in the past elections, in favor of Khan (traditionally, the military supports Punjabi candidates, so claims that the election was rigged for Khan by the army are just attempts to de-legitimize his mandate).
The House of Khans
Since Pakistan's founding, a Khan has either been in charge or in the wings to save the day. Khans generally belong to the second most important ethnic group in Pakistan & South Asia: the Pathans (Pashtuns). If you've ever seen a Bollywood movie, you've seen a Pathan--every major Bollywood actor of the last two decades was an Indian Pathan. The Indian & Pakistani National Cricket teams' best ever captains were both Pathans. Pakistan's two best prime ministers, Prince Liaqat Ali Khan (assassinated) & Ayub Khan (whom TIME magazine described as "the third world's Charles DeGaul") were both Pathans. Imran Khan is also a Pathan. The Pathans often play a weird mix of roles politically: half religious zealot, half playboy, plus three parts reformers with a penchant to order people to do as they say, not as they do. However, due to an ancient honor code called "the way of the Pashtun" (Pashtunwali), the Khans have largely been disinterested in taking part in political corruption, unlike the House of Punjaban & House of Bhutto--which thrive on corruption.
Khan jumped into politics in 1997, 21 years ago, and in the following elections barely won more than a handful of seats. While he was and is the most famous Pakistani ever alive, the establishment of Industrial-Military Complex Punjabis and counter-establishment of Bhutto supporters were wary of a Pathan with a gorgeous blonde wife seeking to run and win office. The man was too liberal, they said, and the people know it.
In many ways, Pakistani politics until now is like watching an episode of the dueling "Borgia" tv shows on Netflix: thronging masses seeking salvation, while the 1% lead them on in public, while in private their debauchery makes a Churchill High pool party look innocent. Khan was known for not doing much to hide his superstar lifestyle given that he *was* a superstar. Khan set out over the next 20 years of his life to building personal relationships with the people he sought to represent, and seek God's favor by becoming an evangelical Muslim--also a very Pathan thing.
The Khan's Views
Khan at times calls for dialogue with the Taliban, who happened to be fellow Pashtuns. This is largely because he feels a duty to bring the increasingly marginalized Pashtuns in from extremism and find a middle way forward with them. His accommodation is a practical matter: the Taliban have engaged and defeated the Punjabi controlled military in nearly every encounter they've had. They are the majority ethnic group in one province, the KPK, and increasingly a growing presence in Karachi and the restive Baluchistan region. Out of all the Pakistani politicians out there, Imran Khan has the most realistic approach to subduing extremism and de-programming years of extremist political ideology that three entire generations of Pashtuns have been subjected to by Pakistan's security apparatus (who created the Taliban, not the CIA).
Even after he and his sister were physically beaten at a lecture he was giving by religious extremists belonging to the pro-Jihadist Jamiat Islam (Islamic Congregation) party, Khan sought out far-right Muslims in order to avoid the fate of fellow Pathan & former Prime Minister Prince Liaqat Ali Khan, who was killed by an extremist Pashtun who felt the prime minister had betrayed both God and country. His religious views are pretty standard: Islam is to be followed until it is *not*. Overall, he does try harder than other Pakistani politicos to show his religious roots--a product again, of being a Pathan, an ethnic group known for a fierce sense of religiosity.
Khan, like the vast majority of Pakistanis and the super majority of the world's tens of millions of Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, does not have a lot of love lost for the US. He generally distrusts American policymakers and views us as very, very unreliable political allies. Khan has privately noted how the US generally betrays its allies: Georgia v Russia, South Vietnam v North Vietnam, the Shah of Iran (by originally refusing to grant him a visa while he lay dying from cancer). On the other hand, China has a shared dislike of India, and has pumped billions into the Pakistani economy. American aid focuses primarily on weaponry.
Khan's political successes will hinge on his ability to subdue corruption, reign in the military's exorbitant spending, and streamlining the economic gains of the past 9 years to reach all Pakistanis, not just the 15% of English-medium middle-class Pakistanis known as "Burger families." Making peace with India over Kashmir is a stretch; Hindu nationalists in India have already sought to paint Khan as a crazed Taliban-lite Pashtun with a bloodlust for Jihad. Given the number of Indian cricketers who came to his inauguration today, that is likely not true.
Overall, now the reigns of power are firmly back in Pathan's hands, Pakistan has a real chance for reform and stabliity.