Khan ‘peace rally’ near Waziristan border has implications for politics in Pakistan and beyond

Imran Khan, the upstart cricket star-turned-politician, led a ‘peace march’ over the weekend, right up to the Waziristan border, in protest of the U.S.-initiated drone attacks designed to target terrorist forces.

Although the march was turned back at the Waziristan border — the Pakistani government literally blocked the road after warning Khan that it could not guarantee the safety of Khan and his entourage — it’s a minor watershed moment for Khan and Pakistani politics, and it marks one of the most high-profile criticisms of what has become an increasingly important element of U.S. ‘Af-Pak’ policy:

The much-publicized rally, which was originally meant to culminate in North Waziristan, ultimately did so in Tank. Amid rousing sloganeering and cheering, Imran Khan delivered his victory speech, thanked his supporters (and the police) and headed back. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief that no untoward incident took place. It’s very rare in Pakistan for a crowd of thousands to have a face-off with law enforcers and avoid a clash. A good precedent was set.

Khan has attacked the drone strikes as a human rights violation and illegal under international law.

Indeed, critics have alleged that the drone program has killed more civilians than intended terrorist targets — and a Stanford/NYU report released in September appears to corroborate that concern.  The U.S. military and the administration of U.S. president Barack Obama, however, claim that the unmanned flights deliver ‘surgical’ strikes against strategic pro-Taliban targets that are destabilizing both Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the U.S. marked the 12th anniversary of its military protest last week — targets that the Pakistani military forces are unwilling or unable to control.

First and foremost, the march has boosted Khan’s exposure even further.  Khan is hoping to make gains in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections expected in February of next year.

Khan, who entered politics in the 1990s, leads the secular, liberal Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice or PTI, پاکستان تحريک), which is currently polling a strong second place nationally, with 24% against 28% for the conservative, rural-based Pakistan Muslim League (N) (اکستان مسلم لیگ ن,  or the PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.  Just 14% support the governing center-left, urban-based Pakistan People’s Party (اکستان پیپلز پارٹی, or the PPP).

President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the late former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and current prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf belong to the PPP.  The PPP has been in power since elections in 2008 following the military regime of Pervez Musharraf,  but has recently been bogged down by ever-present corruption accusations, economic malaise and a high-profile constitutional fight over the power of the prime minister

Polling is notoriously tricky in Pakistan and there are wide regional variations (e.g, the PML-N leads in the most populous province, Punjab; the PPP retains a lead in Sindh, the coastal province that includes the country’s largest city, Karachi), but such a result would make Khan, for the first time, a true power-broker in Pakistani politics, rather than just a pesky annoyance.

Khan has many critics in Pakistan who deride him as a lightweight and a grandstander with simplistic anti-corruption rhetoric in the face of a significantly more complex reality — and they are making a forceful case that Khan’s march is nothing more than sloganeering and petty politics and that ‘Taliban Khan’ is stoking anti-American sentiment for electoral gain. They note that Khan’s march ended at the border with south Waziristan, which has seen far fewer drone strikes than north Waziristan.  As such, Khan was far from any danger — from either Taliban fundamentalists or from U.S. drone strikes.  Both regions are part of what’s known in Pakistan as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (or ‘FATA’), a semi-autonomous area in northwest Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan that’s home to just 3 million of Pakistan’s 180 million people.

But despite the attacks, no other major politician in Pakistan has taken such a forceful stand against the drone strikes nor bothered to attempt to make the drone strikes a national political issue.

The march has gained significant coverage in the United States and Europe as well — not an incredible amount, but still something in an era when the anti-war movement in the United States has been relatively muted since the end of the administration of George W. Bush in January 2009.  Obama only admitted the existence of the unmanned drone program over Pakistan — originally a covert operation of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency — earlier this year, despite its inception under the Bush administration and its acceleration under the Obama administration.

With domestic issues dominating news coverage in an election year in the United States, and with Libya and other stories dominating foreign policy news, I’m not wholly convinced that the mainstream U.S. media and political elite have fully absorbed the full implications of the drone program.  As such, Khan’s march is bringing the CIA-initiated program into fuller relief throughout the world — I can envision the drone program becoming much more controversial if the full extent of civilian damages are corroborated by future reports and studies.

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