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Pakistan government pressured by Imran Khan’s anti-drone rally October 23, 2012

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Andrew Manners

Imran Khan’s anti-drone protest march did not reach its final destination, but it may well heap pressure on the Pakistani Government to take a stronger stance against US drone deployments, especially ahead of the 2013 election.

Background

A protest march against US drone strikes in Pakistan, led by former cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan, ended on 7 October 2012, when authorities prevented the marchers from entering the South Waziristan region. While the march of some 20,000 people failed to reach its final destination, it has renewed pressure on the United States and may force the Pakistani Government to take a stronger stance against US drone attacks, especially ahead of the 2013 election.

Analysis

The march, which began in Islamabad, was intended to finish in South Waziristan, a region heavily targeted by drone strikes. The marchers were stopped, however, when the authorities used steel shipping containers and security forces to seal off the road entering South Waziristan. Mr Khan then led the protesters to Tank, a town near the South Waziristan border, and held a rally there.

Khan hailed the protest a success, telling protesters at the rally: ‘we have given our message… it has gone across the world … we have succeeded in raising the issue. We came here to raise the issue; we came here to make a stand against drones.’ A fierce critic of US drone strikes in Pakistan, Khan told the media before the march that ‘no one should be judge, jury [and] executioner.’ He went on to say, ‘it’s totally counter-productive. All it does is it helps the militants to recruit poor people. Clearly if they are succeeding, these drone attacks, we would be winning the war. But there’s a stalemate.’

His opponents were quick to label the rally a political stunt, however. Opposing political parties such as the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) claimed the motorcade protest was a politically motivated move by Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehrekk-e-Insaaf (PTI), aimed at boosting his declining popularity. Sohail Mahmoud, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera on 7 October that Khan was using the issue of the drones for his own political gain, saying ‘he’s doing it for politics. It’s a political statement.’

With an election scheduled for April 2013, Khan, now a high-profile politician who commands international attention, has made opposition to US drone attacks a centrepiece of his policy. In early October, he told the BBC that he would authorise the shooting down of US drones over his country if he became head of government, because they violated Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Khan has become a political force this year, attracting crowds of up to 200,000 in cities such Karachi and Lahore. But most analysts agree that despite his ability to grab headlines, he has little chance of becoming prime minister in the upcoming elections. An opinion poll last month suggested the PTI’s popularity is dipping, although recent events could revive Khan’s support.

Nevertheless, with an election looming, the issue of US drone attacks on Pakistani soil will be a significant talking point among Pakistan’s political parties. The attacks have become increasingly unpopular in Pakistan. A survey conducted by the New America Foundation found that ‘nine out of ten people in [rural areas] oppose the US military pursuing al-Qaeda and the Taliban in their region’, despite the US reducing the strikes in recent times.

The Pakistani Government has publically denounced the attacks. Privately, however, it appears to condone them. In September, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the only communication between the US and Pakistan concerning the drone attacks, were faxes from US authorities to Pakistan’s intelligence service detailing drone targets, to which Islamabad reportedly no longer responds. The fact that it has not officially opposed the attacks is viewed by Washington as tacit consent, thus giving it legal cover, despite the fact that Pakistan closed the CIA’s only drone base in the country about 10 months ago.

Indeed, it is possible the government is engaging in a double game; it may be playing both sides in an effort to appease the US, while distancing itself from the programme in order to shore up domestic political support. With the upcoming elections and Khan’s high-profile, though, the Pakistani Government may not have that luxury for much longer.

This post first appeared on Future Directions International on 17 October 2012.

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