In his upstart campaign to become Pakistan’s next prime minister, Imran Khan, a magnetic former cricket star and ardent foe of U.S. policy, draws delirious crowds by the tens of thousands who seemingly would follow him anywhere. But this weekend, Khan, who wants to lead his supporters into the dangerous tribal region to protest CIA drone attacks, appears to be headed for a roadblock: Pakistan’s formidable military.
Khan has promised to stage a massive rally Sunday, Oct. 7, in South Waziristan, where the Pakistani army has tamped down but not defeated a fierce Islamist insurgency. Khan picked the location partly for political stagecraft: For years, he has called for an end to the drone campaign, which rains missiles on al-Qaida and other militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas, including South Waziristan.
Khan, who has polled for two successive years as the nation’s most popular politician, this week assembled about 35 drone opponents, principally from the Washington anti-war group Codepink, to join what he calls his “tsunami” for change. Now the question dominating the political dialogue is whether that wave will be allowed to crash into Taliban territory.
U.S. diplomats on Friday warned the American peace activists not to attend the rally this weekend, saying terrorists have threatened to attack the demonstration.
Separately, the Pakistani Taliban warned Friday that they oppose the rally.
The military insists that the decision for the group’s trip rests with the civilian leadership, but, in fact, the army controls access to the restive tribal belt, which borders Afghanistan. The debate highlights tensions inherent in Pakistan’s governance: Although the politicians in Parliament and the executive branch have a vote on domestic and foreign policy, the army and its spy services essentially hold veto power.
“This is a peace march. We are not there to pick a fight with anyone,” Khan said Thursday. “The army, if they think they can’t provide protection beyond a certain point, they’ll tell us that.”
In the past, some analysts have portrayed Khan as a military-backed candidate because of his support for some right-wing Islamists who are considered proxies for Inter-Services Intelligence, the chief spy agency. But as his party, Tehrik-i-Insaaf (Justice Movement), has gained significant popular support, he now has been talking more forcefully about reining in the security establishment to make it bow before the constitution.
In an interview at his home outside the capital, he described major political party leaders as “nurtured by military dictators.” Referring to the generals, he said, “They don’t allow natural leadership to come up because they want controllables.”
Khan’s plan is to depart Saturday from Islamabad with a convoy, including foreigners and journalists, to reach the South Waziristan border by nightfall, then head to the rally site about 30 miles farther west.
Local authorities have voiced concern about the march, which Khan’s party predicts will draw 100,000 people. (Previous rallies in Lahore and Karachi drew double that or more.) Pakistan’s seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas are generally off-limits to anyone except the people who live there.
This report includes information from McClatchy Newspapers.