Pakistani opposition holds anti-NATO rallies | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 13.07.2012
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Pakistani opposition holds anti-NATO rallies

Pakistan's opposition parties are holding anti-NATO demonstrations to protest against Islamabad's decision to reopen NATO supply routes to Afghanistan. But can they force the government to reverse its decision?

In Pakistan, opposition parties are out on the streets to protest against the resumption of key NATO supply lines to Afghanistan.

Land routes to Afghanistan via Pakistan are the cheapest way for NATO to provide much-needed supplies to its troops who are fighting a decade-long war against Islamists militants.

Islamabad had blocked the supply routes in retaliation for a NATO airstrike in Salala near the Afghan border last November that resulted in the death of 24 of its soldiers. US-Pakistani ties had been at their lowest level ever since. Last week, after almost seven months, Pakistan finally agreed to reopen NATO supply lines to Afghanistan after an apology was issued by Washington.

The resumption of NATO supply routes is an extremely unpopular decision in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where anti-US sentiment is rife, and opposition parties as well as Islamist organizations are trying to overthrow the liberal Pakistan People's Party's (PPP) government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

On Thursday, Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan joined the bandwagon. His Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party will hold a protest rally on Sunday, July 15 in Peshawar, the capital city of Pakistan's restive northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.

A weak show by Islamists

Pakistani border security forces guard the NATO containers as they enter Afghanistan from Pakistan

Pakistan opened the border to NATO supplies after the US apologized

Earlier this week, the Defence of Pakistan Council (DPC), an alliance of right-wing parties, held a "long march" against supplies' resumption in the central Punjab province, which culminated at the parliament building in Islamabad, the country's capital.

Experts say the DPC rally was a poor show by the conservative parties, who do not enjoy popular support in Pakistan. However, they warn that the political repercussions of the PPP's decision to unblock NATO supplies should not be undermined because of the weak show by Islamists.

Islamabad-based journalist and left-leaning analyst Abdul Sattar told DW that despite the fact that more than a dozen parties were mobilizing people against resumption, they hardly managed to bring in a few thousand people to their rally.

"In the recent months, there have been several political rallies in Pakistan, but if we compare the DPC 'long march' to them, it was a total failure," Sattar said.

Sattar also said that the majority of Pakistanis are more concerned about unemployment, inflation and energy shortages than NATO supplies.

Opposition from celebrity politician

Cricketer-turned-politician and head of Pakistan Tahrik-e-Insaf party Imran Khan waves to his supporters

Known for his 'playboy' image during his youth, Khan now enjoys much support in politics

DW Peshawar correspondent Faridullah Khan said that the Imran Khan rally on Sunday would be a much better show than the DPC's, as the rising politician enjoyed decent support in the country.

Khan also said that most people in the province were of the view that the ruling coalition of the liberal Awami National Party (ANP) and the PPP had mishandled the "war on terror" against the local Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists.

"Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been badly affected by the 'war on terror.' Many people are against US drone strikes in the semi-governed northwestern tribal areas. Imran Khan, therefore, is expected to cash in on this and hold a big rally against the government on Sunday," said Khan.

Pakistan's former Cricket captain Imran Khan entered politics in the late 1990s. However, although he was worshipped by millions in the country as one of the greatest cricketers the country has ever produced, Khan only started attracting political support recently. Most of his supporters include the country's disenchanted youth and the conservative urban middle class.

Faisal Aziz Khan, a Karachi-based Pakistani journalist, also thinks that Khan's anti-NATO demonstration on Sunday can be a good show of force.

"Imran Khan should be able to perform better than the DPC because he enjoys some support in the KP province. But I don't think that the PPP government faces any big threat of being toppled by opposition parties. The threat to the government does not come from anti-US or anti-NATO groups but from the higher judiciary which is hearing graft cases against its leaders," Khan told DW.

Military support

Supporters of the Pakistani religious parties hold anti-NATO demonstration in the southern Karachi city

Islamic parties are staging nation-wide demonstrations against NATO

Historically, the liberal PPP has not been a favorite with the country's powerful military and its intelligence organizations such as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Pakistan Army has directly ruled the country for more than three decades collectively, and is believed to be more supportive of right-wing parties. Western governments also blame the ISI and the Pakistani military for backing some Taliban groups, including the militant Haqqani network.

Pakistani experts suspect that political groups like the DPC are supported by intelligence agencies.

"Some sections of the Pakistani establishment are supportive of these anti-NATO demonstrations. The establishment wants to use these jihadist groups as a bargaining chip with the West to get more financial and military aid," Sattar said.

Observers also believe that the supply resumption would not have been possible without the approval of the ubiquitous Pakistan Army, which has a firm grip on defense and foreign policy matters; therefore it is unlikely that opposition parties will force the government to reverse its decision through these demonstrations.

Author: Shamil Shams
Editor: Sarah Berning

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