TANK, Pakistan — A convoy protesting U.S. drone strikes led by Imran Khan, the cricket superstar turned politician, stopped short Sunday of its goal to reach Pakistan’s lawless tribal area after threats of an attack from the Pakistani Taliban.
After a chaotic and grueling two-day march from Islamabad, Khan halted the procession just past Tank, the last town before South Waziristan, a dangerous region of the tribal area that is generally considered a no-go zone for Westerners and others, even though the Pakistani army supposedly had cleared it of Taliban in 2009.
Khan said in a statement he halted the march after it had passed Tank when the military contacted him to warn of a “genuine threat” ahead in South Waziristan. On Friday, the Pakistani Taliban had issued a statement criticizing Khan and the march, and U.S. diplomats had warned Americans among the marchers of a possible terrorist attack.
Still, the march, which included the British-American human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith and activists from the U.S. peace group Code Pink, drew attention to Khan’s opposition to the U.S. missile strikes, which has been a centerpiece of his political life.
Festooned with flags and posters, the march – actually a long train of several hundred vehicles – was greeted en route by enthusiastic crowds, who turned out in towns and villages along the way, waving and wanting to see Khan, a superstar for all Pakistanis due to his years as a champion cricket player. Khan is expected to launch a long-shot push to become Pakistan’s next prime minister when elections are held sometime in the next few months.
“Drones are against all human rights and international law. We wish to give the Americans a message : the more you do your drone attacks, the more people here will hate you,” Khan, wearing an elaborate tribal turban, told a rally of several thousand supporters in a dusty field at the end of the march.
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, who led 32 activists to the event, told McClatchy: “Our government has been lying to us. With the drones, we are pursuing an immoral, inhumane, unwise and counterproductive policy.”
Khan claims that the drones largely kill civilians and that the anger this generates drives terrorist attacks in Pakistan, as tribesmen take revenge. The U.S. government, which rarely acknowledges the classified program, insists that the dead are overwhelming militants.
Since the program started in 2004, the CIA has carried out 334 missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal area. Those have reportedly killed between 1,886 and 3,194 people, according to a tally kept by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based research organization.
“If these drones stopped, this area, Waziristan, would be peaceful,” said Kalim Ullah Khan Dawar, from North Waziristan, one of the marchers. “I’ve had to carry out the bodies of dead children myself from the wreckage of strikes.”
Saeed Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.