Imran Khan has said he wants to mend relations with the US despite accusing it of treating Pakistan as a “slave”, signalling a desire to work with Washington after claiming it conspired to remove him as prime minister a few months ago.
In an interview with the Financial Times following an assassination attempt this month, Khan said he no longer “blamed” the US and wants a “dignified” relationship if re-elected. He also warned that Pakistan was close to default and criticised the country’s IMF programme.
The former cricket captain was ousted in April in a no-confidence vote he claims was the result of a conspiracy between prime minister Shehbaz Sharif and the US, a top security partner to Pakistan that has provided the country with billions of dollars in military aid.
Many analysts believe that Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) party is the most likely winner of a general election that has to be held by next year, following a surge in his popularity thanks in part to his anti-American rhetoric.
“As far as I’m concerned it’s over, it’s behind me,” he said of the alleged conspiracy, which both Sharif and the US deny. “The Pakistan I want to lead must have good relationships with everyone, especially the United States.
“Our relationship with the US has been as of a master-servant relationship, or a master-slave relationship, and we’ve been used like a hired gun. But for that I blame my own governments more than the US.”
A gunman shot Khan multiple times in the leg earlier this month while he was leading a march through the country to force early elections. The former prime minister, who is walking on a frame while he recovers, claims to have evidence that Sharif plotted alongside senior civilian and military officials to kill him.
Sharif and the other officials all strongly deny the allegations. But the shooting, and Khan’s explosive accusations, have pushed Pakistan deeper into crisis at a time of political and economic upheaval. Some analysts believe Pakistan, which suffered devastating flooding over the summer, is at risk of defaulting on its more than $100bn in foreign debt.
Khan criticised Pakistan’s IMF programme, first started under his government in 2019 but revived by Sharif, for pushing austerity measures like higher fuel prices at a time of painful inflation.
“When you contract the economy, and some of the IMF measures make your economy shrink, how are you supposed to pay off your loans, because your loans keep increasing?” he said. “Consumption has crashed . . . So my question is: How are we going to pay our debts? We are certainly going to head towards default.”
Critics accuse Khan of further jeopardising this economic outlook by damaging relations with the US, IMF and other international partners on whom Pakistan depends for financing.
Ali Sarwar Naqvi, a former Pakistani diplomat, said that Khan would struggle to mend relations with the US. “If Imran Khan ever returns to power, Pakistan’s relations with the US will remain under stress,” he said.
Khan admitted that a visit to Moscow a day before the Ukraine invasion in February — for which he claims the US retaliated against him — was “embarrassing” but said the trip was organised months in advance.
The former prime minister argued that early elections were the only way to restore political stability. He did not outline specific plans for the economy if in office but warned “it could be beyond anyone” if elections are not held soon.
Despite his popularity, Khan’s path to office faces several obstacles including legal cases that could stop him running.
His allegations over the shooting have also set up a stand-off with Pakistan’s powerful military, who play an often decisive, behind-the-scenes role in the country’s politics. While analysts say the military helped Khan’s rise to the premiership in 2018, relations deteriorated while he was in office.
Analysts say the public barbs between Khan and the armed forces of recent months have little precedent. In the interview, Khan accused the military of having previously weakened independent institutions and, together with political dynasties like the Sharif family, having acted as if “they’re above law”.
“The army can play a constructive role in my future plans for Pakistan,” he said. “But it has to be that balance. You cannot have an elected government which has the responsibility given by the people, while the authority lies somewhere else.”
Some analysts call his criticisms of the military a cynical attempt to pressure them into supporting him and try to influence the upcoming selection of a new army chief. He denied this and said he wants the candidate to be selected “on merit”.