On tour with Imran Khan, Pakistan's wildcard candidate

With Khan laid low by an accident at a rally, Samira Shackle reports on his campaign so far.

It’s 7pm on a hot Sunday evening and I’m standing at a barbed wire barricade. Behind me is crowd of disgruntled but enthusiastic Imran Khan supporters, and in front of me some very uncooperative policeman. I’m in Faisalabad, Pakistan, trying to catch Khan on his whistle-stop tour of Pakistan.

In the preceding eight days, he has appeared at more than 50 jalsas (rallies) across the country, travelling by helicopter so he can visit up to three or four – sometimes more – sites in a day. These barnstorming rallies are the cornerstone of his campaign. Khan, with his celebrity status, charisma, and huge personal fan base, knows that he is the main attraction of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, and he’s making sure he gives the people what they want.

As Khan zooms around the country, his staff are trying, as best they can, to keep up by road, which is no mean feat given the huge distances in Pakistan. On the four hour drive from Islamabad to Faisalabad, his team tells me how security has got tighter and tighter over the course of the campaign. For this particular rally, we’ve had to submit our names and other details to the organisers to facilitate backstage access.

But that information isn’t doing us any good with the police, who seem to be enjoying the power trip. We can see the stage gate, which is about 30 metres from the barbed wire. “No-one goes through without a security pass,” says the policeman, smugly. We try to explain that our passes are at the gate, if someone could just go and check our names, but they are having none of it. The senior PTI workers I’m with are unimpressed, to say the least, but their status is doing nothing to budge the police.

Suddenly, there is a kerfuffle. A man has broken through the side of the barricade and is making a run for it to the gate. People are shouting after him but he’s just a retreating back, like the Roadrunner, cutting a shape through the line of armed security guards. “Who is that?” I ask. The reply comes: the local candidate, who has effectively had to break into his own rally.

The security last Sunday may have been over-zealous, but it is with good reason. According to the Interior Ministry, Khan is high up in the “top five” targets for terrorists, with only Nawaz Sharif, current electoral frontrunner and head of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), facing a greater risk.

While members of the media tend to be on the stage with Khan rather than in the crowd, it’s probably one of the least safe places to be. He is one of the only politicians who refuses to address the crowds from behind a bulletproof glass, although in a concession to security, he has taken to wearing body armour under his trademark salwar kameez. Khan’s frenetic road show across the country has made media access very difficult; journalists have no option but to join on the campaign trail where they can and fight through his army of close supporters to grab 10 minutes with him before he helicopters to his next event.

As it has played out, it was not terrorists that struck Khan down but an unfortunate accident. At a rally in Lahore last night, he fell 10 feet as he was being lifted onto the stage. Luckily, Khan is not in a serious condition, though he is reportedly in considerable pain due to injuries to his skull and back. Images and videos of the incident instantly beamed around the globe. There is a sense of pathos that Khan has been stopped in his tracks, so near the conclusion of his momentum-building tour. In almost every area, the crowds and the energy really have been impressive.

The doctors have advised a week of bed rest. Tomorrow’s huge rally in Islamabad, which was supposed to be the climax of a hectic campaign, will go ahead – but Khan will address the crowds by video link.

This being Pakistan, home of the conspiracy theory, many people are speculating that “external forces” contributed to Khan’s “accident”, and that someone caused it deliberately to sabotage his campaign. Clearly, watching the video, this is absurd. After all, Pakistan is hardly known for its stringent health and safety standards.

More importantly, Khan’s accident may have brought an early end to his rousing public appearances, but it is unlikely that at this stage, it will make much difference. Sharif remains the frontrunner, and Khan remains the wildcard candidate: victory would be a surprise, but it is not totally inconceivable. As Khan said from his hospital bed, in a TV statement released just hours after his fall, it is now up to the voters.

Khan speaks from his hospital bed. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.