Will Imran Khan Block NATO Supplies in Pakistan?

The popular cricketer turned politician is leading the charge against U.S. drone strikes

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Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

Imran Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, addresses supporters during an election campaign rally in Faisalabad, Pakistan, on May 05, 2013

Many in Pakistan were outraged last week when a U.S. drone killed militant leader Hakimullah Mehsud, calling the strike yet another example of Washington bulldozing over the nation’s sovereignty. But few have voiced their anger quite so loudly as Imran Khan. The cricketer turned politician, who is chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, has led the charge at the U.S. over the timing of the Nov. 1 attack, saying it was a bald attempt to sabotage imminent peace talks between Islamabad and Mehsud’s group, the Pakistani Taliban.

“We’d been waiting for two months for this peace process to start and then finally when everyone had come to a consensus for peace, they destroyed the peace process,” Khan told the BBC. “I mean, are they a friend or an enemy?”

In protest, Khan has vowed to block NATO supplies moving to and from Afghanistan by road through the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where his party is in power. On Monday, the provincial assembly approved a resolution to start the blockade on Nov. 20 unless U.S. drone strikes stop. Khan has said he will organize protests to block the supply route, but exactly what shape that action would take is still unclear. “The entire nation is very angry,” says Shah Farman, a PTI member and the province’s information minister. “We are exploring each and every corner [to see] what constitutional authority we have.”

Critics of the blockade say the answer to that question is already known: PTI has none. Among the divisions of power between Pakistan’s federal government and provinces, security and foreign policy matters fall to the center, says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Rais says there has been widespread criticism of Khan’s threat to choke supplies because it is a direct challenge to the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at a time when the nation is facing difficulties from terrorist attacks in Peshawar to target killings in Karachi. “Any politician that brings people on the streets in such difficult days invites trouble for himself and the people,” says Rais.

Sharif’s government has also condemned the Nov. 1 strike that the Pakistani Taliban has said killed Mehsud in North Waziristan. The operation came shortly after Sharif’s high-profile visit to the U.S., where he called on President Barack Obama to stop Washington’s long-running covert drone campaign. The disregard for that request — along with fresh revelations that Pakistan has also been complicit in drone strikes in the past — have put a new chill on U.S.-Pakistan relations. But Sharif has so far stopped short of backing Khan’s proposed NATO blockade.

Pakistan has stopped NATO supplies moving on its roads before. Starting in 2011, the routes were blocked for several months. Today, about 60% of the equipment that NATO is moving out of Afghanistan ahead of the troop withdrawal next year goes through Pakistan, according to the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. The rest is moved out by air. Though sending trucks is cheaper, a temporary blockade seems unlikely to have a policy-changing impact, particularly as the killing of a leader like Mehsud is a big win for the drone program.

Indeed, PTI’s call for protest — like much of the public victimization of Mehsud — is as much about domestic politics as anything else. Khan has consistently been a critic of the U.S. drone program, but, says Rais, he and the leaders of his party “know the reality. Pakistan cannot really stop drone strikes. They are simply making political capital out of the miserable conditions the country is in.”