Islamabad, Pakistan – Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister, has signalled his readiness to mend ties with the United States after repeatedly accusing Washington of conspiring to remove him from power in April.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s over, it’s behind me. The Pakistan I want to lead must have good relationships with everyone, especially the United States,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times published on Saturday.
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While he expressed a willingness to work with the US if he is re-elected and said he wants a “dignified” relationship with the US, the 70-year-old also criticised Pakistan’s relationship with the US.
“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,” he said.
Commenting on Khan’s remarks, a US State Department spokesperson told Al Jazeera via email that the United States values its “long-standing cooperation with Pakistan and has always viewed a prosperous and democratic Pakistan as critical” to US interests.
“We will not let propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation get in the way of any bilateral relationship, including our valued bilateral partnership with Pakistan,” the spokesperson said.
Khan was removed as prime minister in April following a vote of no confidence in parliament, which he has since blamed on a US-led foreign conspiracy that also involved Pakistan’s powerful military establishment and his political rivals.
He has never provided any evidence to back his allegations. Islamabad and Washington have denied the charges.
‘The gloves are off’
On November 3, Khan was shot and wounded in the leg in Wazirabad city, in the eastern province of Punjab, while leading a protest march on the capital to demand early elections. The current National Assembly’s term ends in October 2023.
The long march, which began on October 28 from Lahore, resumed after the shooting, and Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party is on its way to Islamabad. While he is unable to physically attend, he addresses his supporters every evening.
Khan told the Financial Times in the interview, shortly after he was shot, that early elections were the only way to restore political stability and warned of growing economic upheaval if they aren’t held soon.
His popularity has often surged because of his anti-Washington rhetoric, but Khan’s walking back the US conspiracy theory was inevitable, said analyst Mosharraf Zaidi from the Tabadlab think-tank in Islamabad.
It was not the first time that Khan used a populist trope “he knows to be untrue to excite his base”, Zaidi said.
“The reason this is coming to the fore now is that the US angle in his conspiracy theory allowed him to attack the military leadership without actually attacking it,” Zaidi told Al Jazeera.
“Now that the gloves between him and General Bajwa [Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa] are coming off, the utility of maintaining the US veneer is substantially diminished.”
While the US has historically been one of Pakistan’s close allies, the last decade has seen a cooling off despite Washington being Islamabad’s key security and economic partner.
Pakistan has received more than $30bn dollars in aid over the past 20 years alone as one of the US’s key partners in the so-called “war on terror” in Afghanistan.
A senior PTI official denied that Khan was anti-US, saying instead that he was merely questioning Washington’s policy.
“Imran Khan has never been an anti-American politician, his narrative has never been anti-America,” said Asad Umar.
“His politics is that the US policy is never consistent with American ideals itself, nor in the interest of our region, nor in the interest of America itself. There is a very clear distinction in his criticism which needs to be drawn to take his statements in context,” Umar told Al Jazeera.
In a video address on Monday, Khan alleged that a “propaganda cell which feeds to those journalists which are in their [government’s] pockets. Whenever I give an interview, they are told to specifically pick particular parts from it, and share it without context.”
Khan said this was happening because the goal of those in the alleged cell was to show that he “says something once, and now he is saying something else”.
Standing by his narrative, Khan added: “We want good relations with everybody. Be it China. Be it Russia. Be it America. We don’t want to be slaves of anybody.”
However, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif hit out at Khan in a post on Twitter on Monday evening, saying his predecessor’s interview with the Financial Times was a “reminder of vicious role he played to harm Pakistan’s external relations.”
“Nation is shocked by his deceit & treachery inflicting irreparable damage on Pakistan,” Sharif alleged.
Niazi's interview with FT in which he rebutted his foreign conspiracy theory is a reminder of vicious role he played to harm Pakistan's external relations while pursuing his own petty politics. Nation is shocked by his deceit & treachery inflicting irreparable damage on Pakistan.
— Shehbaz Sharif (@CMShehbaz) November 14, 2022
Zaidi, the analyst, believes Khan “will continue to play one game with his followers and another with publications such as the FT [Financial Times] because his primary audience is his populism-vulnerable supporter.”
He added: “Once he has power … he can always walk back the nonsensical and patently untrue master-slave type narratives.”