In October, the Pakistani cricket star turned politician Imran Khan, led a much-publicized ‘peace rally’ against American drone strikes to the brink of the world’s most precarious region – South Waziristan. Accompanied by a contingent of American anti-war activists from Codepink and thousands of supporters from across the country, Khan hoped to bring unprecedented international spotlight to an issue that is already highly sensitive in Pakistan.
Amid warnings from Pakistan’s military and intelligence machinery of potentially life-threatening danger to him and his entourage, Khan had to retreat before reaching his original destination of Kotkai, located deep in the tribal badlands. Despite the setback, he still managed to assemble and address a sizable crowd in the nearby town of Tank, just 11 miles away from South Waziristan. Many are of the view that the ‘peace rally’ achieved its primary objectives: garnering considerable attention in the international media, spurring concern in multifarious circles across the globe, and sending a message of solidarity to the troubled people of Waziristan who have been neglected by the politicians for far too long. It was, to say the least, a step toward levying pressure on the U.S. government to end drone strikes.
Critics, however, claim that Khan’s rally was more of a political stunt than a genuine protest. His speech barely touched on drone strikes and their victims. He neither explicitly laid down his policy against American drone program nor did he condemn the barbaric acts of militants thriving in the region. Instead, Khan took this opportunity to taunt his opposition and thank his supporters who did their best at sloganeering. It was, critics say, a means to boost the party’s popularity before elections. The monopolistic political parties that are threatened by Khan left no stone unturned to marginalize his efforts. Pakistan Muslim League (N), which was harshly criticized by Khan for calling the return of the ‘Long March’ before reaching Islamabad in 2009, lashed out at him this time for not marching to Kotkai. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the chief of Jamat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal, labeled Khan a ‘western agent’ and declared that his ‘peace rally’ was frivolous. Other political parties claimed that such initiatives have already been taken in the past and Khan did nothing new.
The rally took place days after New York University and Stanford University published a report revealing the fact that far more civilians have been killed by drone strikes than the U.S. government admits. It stated that American drone program in Pakistan is counterproductive; something that Khan has said for years.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit organization based in London, 351 strikes have taken place since 2004 killing as many as 885 civilians including 176 children. This resonates with what Khan and others like him have pointed out time and again. He believes it is imperative that Pakistan immediately disaffiliates from the ‘American’ war, negotiates with the peace loving tribal populace, and isolates the hardcore militants. This, he says, will establish peace and help reduce terrorism as well as anti-Americanism.
Regardless of Khan’s intentions, his efforts in a politically polarized society like Pakistan are bound to draw criticism. But Khan is known for fighting in the face of adversity. He reaffirmed his popular image in an interview to a Pakistani channel when he claimed that if his party comes to power, he will order to shoot down drones if all other means fail to halt the strikes. This strategy may sound appealing to the masses in Pakistan but it can have serious repercussions if executed. Khan says he will first take other courses of action to achieve the desired result. He has been trying to bring anti-war Americans and the international community on board to highlight his stance on drone attacks. On October 27th, when Khan boarded a flight from Toronto to New York in order to attend a fundraising event, U.S. immigration officials removed him from the plane, detained him, and interrogated him on his views on drones. However, he remains hopeful that American people will realize the enormity of the situation and support him in this cause.
It is undeniable that Pakistan has suffered the most as a result of the ‘war on terror’. Pakistani soldiers and civilians have been killed both by U.S. operations as well as Taliban attacks. It may be easy for drone operators to sit thousands of miles away from Waziristan and zap a target on a computer screen, but it is difficult for them to realize its effects on the innocent victims and their families. The computer screen fails to illustrate the emotions of civilians, it is deaf to the cries of women and children, and it does not differentiate between a terrorist and a kid. Drone strikes have fueled suicide bombings and provided Taliban with a reason to continue their gruesome activities. The aid provided to Pakistan by the U.S. can in no way compensate for the loss. Yet the American authorities have defended the use of drones. Recently, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon while speaking at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government defended the use of drones to combat terrorism. He called them a ‘wise tool’ and said that the U.S. is in ‘full compliance’ with domestic and international law.
While the aim of both countries is the same, Pakistan has opposed the methods adopted by the U.S. to achieve it. Talking about the Israel-Gaza conflict, President Barak Obama recently said that ‘there is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders’. Khan plans to do exactly that – not tolerate attacks on Pakistan’s territory.
Will Khan live up to his word or will he change his stance if he comes to power? Will his efforts yield results or go in vain? Such questions are yet to be answered.
Despite his shortcomings, Khan should be given due credit for attempting to solve this highly charged issue if nothing else. By holding the ‘peace rally’, he has certainly rung some bells in Pakistan and abroad. His voice may also have echoed in the corridors of the White House but it was only a matter of time before it died out. Despite Khan’s efforts, informative media debates, and constant protests by the Government of Pakistan, drone attacks continue to this day.
One can only hope that Khan will eventually emerge victorious in his battle against drones and provide a practical alternative solution to combat terrorism. This will not only be a victory for him alone but also for the oppressed people of Waziristan, Pakistan, as well as the U.S. in the long-run.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.