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Asia

Khan's anti-drone rally 'achieved domestic aims'

Although Pakistani authorities did not allow opposition leader Imran Khan to enter South Waziristan, many experts say that - one way or another - the cricketer-turned politician still achieved his objectives.

On Sunday, the Pakistani military authorities stopped anti-war politician Imran Khan and thousands of his supporters from entering South Waziristan - an insurgency-racked part of the tribal northwest.

The ex-cricket star-turned politician with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had planned to cross the border and, once there, address "peace march" participants opposing the US drone strikes.

"Drone strikes are against the human rights of the Pakistani people," Khan told DW, arguing that civilian deaths were a source of growing ill-feeling. "We want to give this message to the US that drone strikes will only increase hatred against the US."

Peace activists (Photo: Reuters)

There were some 500 vehicles involved in the protest

While the marchers did not get to their destination, political experts say that getting so close was still a "significant achievement."

Khan's 500-vehicle convoy - which carried dozens of western peace activists, including 32 Americans - got within 15 miles of the border.

Khan, who enjoys considerable support of the urban middle-class and educated Pakistanis, had planned to stage the rally in the Kotkai area of South Waziristan - the hometown of Hakimullah Mehsud, chief of the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani military's Frontier Corps said they could not ensure the safety of the rally participants.

The Pakistani Taliban - also known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - offered protection to Khan and his supporters in the region. Despite that, the Pakistani authorities had warned that it would be too risky.

The New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, reports that US drone strikes have killed between 1,715 and 2,680 people in Pakistan over the past eight years. The method is criticized for inflicting a high proportion of civilian deaths.

Rally, a ‘success'

Pakistani journalist Nafasat Hasnain, who was part of the media team covering the rally, said that despite the fact that the "peace march" participants could not go into South Waziristan, the rally was still a "success."

A U.S. Navy BQM-74E drone launches from the flight deck of the guided missile frigate (Photo: Reuters)

A US think-tank estimates that up to 2,680 people have died as a result of drone attacks in Pakistan

"Khan's party will benefit from it in next year's parliamentary elections," said Hasnain. "They can say to people that only they can bring peace to the insurgency-marred country by engaging in a dialogue with the Taliban."

Hasnain added that the fact there were about eight to ten thousand people in the rally, including the local people, made it a "decent" turnout.

Commenting on the failure to hold the rally in South Waziristan, Shafqat Mehmod, a spokesman for Khan's party, said: "We had already made our point to the international media," Mehmood said.

Zakria Zubair, a PTI supporter in Islamabad, told DW that the rally was a success because it managed to attract the world's attention. "I think we did a satisfactory job. Major foreign media organizations reported the event. But I doubt whether it was 'big' enough to force the US and Pakistani governments to rethink their policies. No political party would ever say that their rally was a failure - however, I think Khan personally would be disappointed with it," said Zubair.

Drone strikes

Pakistan's federal minister for information and broadcasting Qamar Zaman Kaira told the media on Monday that the Pakistani government would support Khan if he initiated "peace talks" with the Taliban. He also condemned the US drone strikes once again.

American citizens rally in Islamabad, Pakistan against drone attacks in Pakistani tribal belt (Photo: AP/dapd)

Western peace activists were among those protesting with Khan

But many political analysts in Pakistan believe that despite the fact that the US drone strikes are controversial, they are still effective.

Ali K. Chishti, a Karachi-based security and political analyst, told DW that the "drone strategy has worked out well for everyone except al Qaeda and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan." He said the drone strikes had forced militants to restrict their movements.

"Drone strikes are a huge political issue in Pakistan. However, both the military and political leadership privately accept that they have been very effective. We must not forget that it was a drone strike that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the man responsible for the assassination of Pakistan's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto," said Chishti.

Journalist Asha'ar Rehman in Lahore believes the very fact that Washington continues to use drones to attack militants in Pakistan is proof that it does not trust the country. "Many people in Pakistan are of the view that drones have been able to contain militants," said Rehman, adding that the collateral damage was the only point that was causing concern.

"Imran Khan believes drone strikes kill innocent children and women, which lead to more radicalization and extremism," said Zubair. "Don't forget that the tribal people are mostly illiterate, poor and unemployed and can easily be swayed by extremist elements once they lose a family member in a drone strike." Zubair also said that drone strikes undermine Pakistan's sovereignty.

Right-wing support

Many observers also think that Khan is backed by Pakistan's right-wing groups, in particular the conservative military establishment, because of his "soft" stance on the Taliban and other Islamist militants. His rise in Pakistani politics, some people say, is because of his "good relations" with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who agree on matters such as Afghanistan or Pakistan's national security discourse. Some accuse him of effectively siding with the Taliban.

FILE -- In this Sunday Aug. 5, 2012 file photo, a Pakistani Taliban militant holds a rocket-propelled grenade at the Taliban stronghold of Shawal, in Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan, Pakistan. Pakistani officials said Saturday that it is investigating whether the son of the founder of the powerful Haqqani militant network, Badruddin Haqqani, was killed in a U.S. drone strike this week. The U.S. has long viewed the Haqqani network as one of the biggest threats to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan as well as the country’s long term stability. (Foto: Ishtiaq Mahsud, File/AP/dapd)

Taliban combatants are not the only victims of the new preferred form of attack

"I don't think it is true," said Hasnain. "I believe that Khan is trying to solve the problems through dialogue."

For his part, Zubair said Khan had been calling for peace dialogues with the Taliban since 2004. "The Taliban call Imran Khan a Western spy and the liberals call him Taliban Khan. This should tell you that he is in the middle - something the Pakistani people want," said Zubair.

But Karachi-based journalist Owais Tohid thinks Khan's politics is definitely "conservative."

"His views about the region, the world and, in particular about the militant groups in Pakistan, are sympathetic if not supportive of the religious right," said Tohid.

For Khan, the publicity is likely to prove useful. The subject of drone attacks is set to be a plank of his campaign in the run-up to a general election next year.