After captaining Pakistan to its first-ever Cricket World Cup in 1992, Imran Khan embarked on a victory tour of the South Asian nation.
Khan, who claims Pashtun heritage, made a point of visiting the country’s northwestern tribal areas. The impoverished and largely lawless region is home to millions of Pashtuns, Pakistan’s largest ethnic minority.
Soon after his trip to the tribal belt, Khan published a book -- Warrior Race: A Journey Through The Land Of The Tribal Pathans -- in which he boasted of his Pashtun background. Pathan is another word for Pashtun.
But in the intervening years, the cricketer-turned-politician has alienated many Pashtuns, who straddle the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Since becoming prime minister in 2018, Khan has made a series of controversial remarks about Pashtuns that have been condemned by Pashtun activists, politicians, and even militants.
Khan’s remarks on Pashtuns and the furor surrounding them have only intensified since the Afghan Taliban, a militant group consisting mainly of Pashtuns, seized power in Afghanistan.
On October 11, Khan claimed that many Pakistani Pashtuns support the Afghan Taliban due to ethnic affiliation.
“The Pashtuns on this side [Pakistan] were completely sympathetic with the [Taliban] Pashtuns [in Afghanistan] -- not because of the religious ideology but because of Pashtun ethnicity and nationality, which is very strong,” Khan told the Middle East Eye, a digital news organization based in Britain.
Khan’s remarks prompted outrage among many Pashtuns, who accused the prime minister of spreading misinformation and rubbing salt on the wounds of the community in Pakistan.
Pashtuns make up the majority of recruits and members of the Afghan Taliban and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, an extremist group that has operational and ideological links to the Afghan militants.
But thousands of Pashtun civilians have been killed in attacks by the TTP. The Pakistani Army’s offensives to root out the TTP from northwestern Pakistan have also displaced millions of Pashtun civilians, who allege extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and harassment by law enforcement.
“Imran Khan’s comments have added insult to injury for Pashtuns,” says Afrasiab Khattak, a former Pashtun lawmaker who survived a TTP suicide attack in 2008.
Khattak says by linking TTP violence with Pashtun ethnic sentiments Khan is attempting to justify Islamabad’s support for the Afghan Taliban.
Pakistan’s powerful military, which has an oversized role in the country of some 220 million, has long been accused of sheltering, arming, and training the Afghan militants before they regained power in Afghanistan in August.
Mohsin Dawar, a Pakistan lawmaker who hails from the tribal areas, submitted a motion on October 11 in the National Assembly, or lower house of the parliament, calling on Khan to apologize.
“This is not the first time the PM has tried to portray the Taliban as representing Pashtuns,” the motion read. “Baseless and racist generalizations like these have to be called out.”
Khan’s comments triggered a protest by the leftist Mazdoor Kissan Party in the northwestern city of Peshawar on October 12.
“If our country’s prime minister repeatedly says an armed group is really an ethnic movement, the world will eventually believe it,” Shakil Wahidullah, the head of the party, told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.
Alamzeb Mahsud, a leader of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), a civil rights group, told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal that Khan comments are an attempt to “show the world the Pashtuns are a terrorist nation.”
Even the TTP rejected Khan’s comments.
“We are a jihadist organization, which is above ethnic and linguistic affiliation,” said a statement attributed to the group.
Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party has accused his rivals of misrepresenting his comments.
Khan made similar remarks on Pashtuns during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly on September 25.
“In Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal belt, where no Pakistan Army has been since our independence, they had strong sympathies with the Afghan Taliban -- not because of their religious ideology but because of Pashtun nationalism, which is very strong,” he said.
Those comments came after Khan falsely described the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction that is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, as a “Pashtun tribe living in Afghanistan.”
Zia Ur Rehman, an independent Pakistani journalist, says Khan’s comments have fed into “the state-level stereotyping of Pashtuns as Taliban supporters.”
Pashtuns face discrimination and racial profiling in Pakistan, where law enforcement “detain anyone who even looks Pashtun,” Rehman says, alluding to the frequent security sweeps that follow major terrorist attacks in the country.
Observers say Khan has long peddled stereotypes about Pashtuns such as projecting their warlike image in a bizarre attempt to brandish his own heritage.
The 69-year-old Khan was born in the eastern city of Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province. He does not speak Pashto or follow Pashtun traditions. But he has claimed he has Pashtun heritage.
“Calling himself a Pathan or Pashtun is a marketing gimmick that Imran Khan has used for a very long time,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistan expert at the University of London.
“He uses the word Khan as a suffix, which means maybe hundreds of years ago someone from his family migrated from the Central Asian Afghan heartland, but that does not make him a Pashtun,” she said.