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Does Imran Khan Know Who the Taliban Are?

Imran Khan is known internationally as a rising star in Pakistani politics, but he’s been on the scene for a while. Once a cricket star and playboy, he’s now one of the most popular politicians in the country and a possible candidate for prime minister.

Khan also has a disturbing relationship with the Taliban. Yesterday he told journalists that the Taliban is engaged in a holy war, setting off a storm of comments from Afghan politicians, as the Guardian reports:

Citing a verse from the Qur’an, he [Khan] said: “It is very clear that whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad. . . .

“The people who are fighting in Afghanistan against the foreign occupation are fighting a jihad,” he added, according to a video of remarks to journalists.

Afghan politicians have reacted with disbelief, with one parliamentarian suggesting Khan should be arrested. The Ulema Council, a grouping of senior clerics, declared his comments “unislamic”.

A Kabul foreign ministry spokesman said Khan was “either profoundly and dangerously ignorant about the reality in Afghanistan, or he has ill will against the Afghan people.

“Our children are killed on daily basis, civilians killed and our schools, hospitals and infrastructure attacked on a daily basis. To call any of that jihad is profoundly wrong and misguided.”

Perhaps Khan is not as in touch with the Taliban as he likes to think. His adversaries in Pakistan, a group that includes prominent newspaper editors and politicians, “regard him  as dangerously naive about the menace that Islamist radicals pose to Pakistan,” writes Steve Coll in the New Yorker. Khan likes to say that if he were in charge of the Pakistani government he would be able to end terrorism quickly by withdrawing the military from tribal areas and simply talking things over with Taliban and tribal leaders. His plan to tear down the walls of the mansions where privileged officials live is also popular among his supporters, as is his pledge to end U.S. aid to Pakistan, which he describes as a “curse.”

Not long ago Khan’s political party was virtually unknown; now his events draw tens of thousands. Many of his supporters hail from Pakistan’s educated middle class, and analysts notice that his rise to power has coincided with the collapse in popularity of the other pillars of Pakistani politics: the current civilian leadership, which is widely seen as hopelessly corrupt, and the army.

Such enthusiasm for a reformer has happened before, with predictable results, as Coll continues: “Periodically, a promising reformer emerges and vows to redeem the country. . . . Some of the reformers have achieved a fair election here, a spurt of economic development there, but greed, hubris, or both undid them all.”

Polls say Khan is the most popular politician in the country, by a wide margin. If his party wins big in elections next year, Islamabad’s policy toward the Taliban and the tribal regions might shift. “The Army and the new government would have to come and sit down and work things out: no more militancy. No more militant groups,” he told Coll. But this is Pakistan, and there is no simple solution to the problem of Islamic radicalism. Khan’s hopeful policy ideas have an immature ring to them, and though they might be popular among Pakistanis who are desperate for change, in reality they are unlikely to be pretty or particularly successful.

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