Pakistani cricket star turned politician Imran Khan has been leading protests against U.S. drone strikes in the country by choking off the NATO supply routes that run to Afghanistan through the northwest Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
At the weekend, Khan led a two-day sit-in at one of the main routes used for the trucks. The rally attracted thousands of mostly young supporters of this Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party. Against the fitful blare of nationalistic pop songs, the crowd enthusiastically waved party flags and cheered as successive speakers denounced the drone strikes.
“Until drone strikes are stopped, we won’t stop our protest,” Khan bellowed to roars of approval. The protests have been triggered by last month’s assassination of Hakimullah Mehsud, the brutal leader of the Pakistani Taliban, who was killed at his home in the Danday Darpakhel area of North Waziristan. By blocking NATO supplies, Khan hopes that he can exert pressure on the CIA to end drone strikes inside Pakistan.
Khan and other Pakistani politicians allege that the strike that killed Mehsud was a “deliberate” attempt to sabotage peace talks with the Taliban. “We were going towards peace,” Khan told the crowd. “The Taliban was ready to negotiate with a political government for the first time. The drone didn’t just kill Hakimullah Mehsud, it killed our peace process.” After Mehsud’s death, the new leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, has said that his cohorts will not enter negotiations with the Pakistani government.
The enduring controversy over the CIA’s drone strikes that target Afghan and Pakistani militants was heightened last week when a fresh strike killed leading militants of the Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent group that uses Pakistan as a base to mount cross-border attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The attack was notable because it did not simply strike in the tribal areas on the border but inside Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Hangu district.
On Sunday, the crowds at the sit-ins at three different locations in Peshawar had notably thinned out before demonstrations turned ugly. Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper, reported that members of Khan’s party had started to harass truck drivers along the route, forcing some off their trucks, damaging their convoys, and even beating a driver. At the same time, Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist ally of Khan’s, led a thousands-strong rally in Karachi, where the trucks begin their journey.
It isn’t clear how long Khan and his supporters will be able to sustain their protests. Asghar Jan, 30, a software engineer who traveled to Peshawar from Islamabad to join the protests says, “We will stay here for as long as it takes.” Saifullah Niazi, a senior PTI leader, says “We will stop all NATO supplies indefinitely until the U.S. halts all drone attacks.”
But Khan’s latest gambit does not have the support of the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose aides accuse the former cricketer of trying to damage relations with the outside world even as they try to repair them.
Khan’s many critics also accuse of him of trying to tap a fresh wave of anti-American sentiment in an effort to deflect attention from the performance of his provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Still others say that the opposition leader is too soft on the Taliban, mounting protests only when drone strikes occur, and blaming the U.S. for bringing war to the region, but never challenging the Taliban for its frequent terrorist attacks across the country.
The NATO supply route to Afghanistan has been choked off on previous occasions. In 2011, when at least 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a NATO airstrike, Pakistan blocked the two routes to Afghanistan for five months. They were eventually opened after Washington and Islamabad repaired relations to some extent. While U.S. and NATO forces have since diminished their dependence on the supply route through Pakistan, it will be crucial for the scheduled withdrawal of troops next year.