By SALMAN MASOOD, New York Times, October 7, 2012
TANK, Pakistan — Imran Khan, a cricket star turned opposition politician, abandoned plans to hold a much-heralded rally against American drone strikes at a village deep inside Pakistan’s tribal belt on Sunday after the Pakistani military warned him of “imminent danger” if he went ahead with the event.
Instead, Mr. Khan led a motorcade that included thousands of supporters and a contingent of American peace activists to the edge of the South Waziristan tribal agency, then returned to the town of Tank, 11 miles away, where he held his rally.
Mr. Khan’s supporters said their “peace march” offered a new focus for Pakistani anger over the Obama administration’s controversial drone campaign in Pakistan’s border areas, which has killed up to 3,300 people, including as many as 880 civilians, since 2004, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, which tracks drone strikes. Critics derided the event as little more than a political stunt that capitalized on widespread anti-Americanism in Pakistan and was intended to lift Mr. Khan’s wavering political fortunes.
Mr. Khan declared the rally a success despite the fact that it could not be held in South Waziristan, saying it highlighted the deaths of innocent civilians. “The response has been overwhelming,” he said in an interview.
South Waziristan, a rugged region of thick forests and steep mountains, is home to an array of militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, who have been responsible for dozens of suicide bombings since 2007, as well as Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban fighters who cross into Afghanistan to attack American and allied troops.
In 2009, the Pakistani Army seized control of several main roads in part of South Waziristan, causing Taliban leaders to flee into nearby North Waziristan, where American drone strikes have been concentrated in recent years.
Mr. Khan had intended to address the protesters in Kotkai, a mountain village that is the hometown of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud. The Pakistani Taliban had warned that militants would attack the convoy.
Still, Mr. Khan’s rally in Tank was notable in that no other political party has managed to hold such a large event so close to the restive tribal region.
The charismatic Mr. Khan has emerged on Pakistan’s political landscape as a populist figure, tapping into widespread anger over what many see as government corruption and deep anti-American sentiments. He has criticized both American drone strikes and Pakistani military operations in the tribal region. He advocates peace talks with the Taliban and other militants.
Over the weekend, he was joined by three dozen American peace activists from the antiwar group Codepink and other foreigners, including Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of the British human rights group Reprieve, and Lauren Booth, a convert to Islam and the sister-in-law of former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.
Mr. Khan and his convoy set off from Islamabad on Saturday, crossing from Punjab Province into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province before reaching Dera Ismail Khan, a small town on the edge of the tribal belt. He was joined by hundreds more supporters on Sunday, many of them students, who had traveled from across the country to join him.
Mr. Khan has struggled to sustain the public’s interest created by a series of large rallies in late 2011; liberals call him “Taliban Khan” for his muted criticism of the Taliban. A recent survey by the International Republican Institute said that Mr. Khan’s popularity had fallen by 22 percent since last February. Elections are expected to take place next spring. “Imran Khan is just trying to stay relevant,” said Nusrat Javed, a talk-show host who traveled with the motorcade.
Although several thousand people turned out for Sunday’s rally, according to various estimates, it was smaller than Mr. Khan had predicted, and analysts said the event had a largely symbolic value and was unlikely to attract new followers. But members of his party said they believed that it would re-energize the core supporters of his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
“The rally has caught people’s imagination,” said Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri, a former foreign minister and a leader of Mr. Khan’s party, noting the enthusiastic response of the people who watched the motorcade pass.
When Mr. Khan introduced the American activists, the crowd responded by chanting “Welcome, welcome.” Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of Codepink, said, “We are here to say from the bottoms of our hearts that we are sorry for the actions of our government.” Other American activists at the rally condemned the drone strikes as inhumane and illegal.
Although the Obama administration rarely acknowledges the drone campaign in public, officials privately say that the strikes are an effective counterterrorism tool in a lawless area where the Pakistani government exercises minimal control.
Declan Walsh contributed reporting from Sindh Province, and Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud from Tank.