ISLAMABAD — Hundreds of Pakistani nationalists blockaded roads in northwest Pakistan Sunday, vowing to prevent the passage of supplies to U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan until the Central Intelligence Agency ends drone strikes against the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Activists from the Movement for Justice mounted the blockade in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in defiance of the federal government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The blockade shut down one of two land routes through Pakistan linking land-locked Afghanistan with Pakistan’s port of Karachi, and is likely, if it persists, to disrupt NATO’s ability both to send supplies to its forces in Afghanistan and the alliance’s ability to ship equipment out of the country as part of its scheduled withdrawal of combat forces.
A second route, through the western Pakistani province of Baluchistan and the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, remains open.
Imran Khan, a former world renown cricket star and the head of Movement for Justice, ordered the blockade. Speaking at a rally Saturday in Peshawar, the provincial capital, Khan said a Nov. 1 drone strike that killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, had "sabotaged" prospective peace talks between the militant insurgents and the government, agreed to at a conference of political parties in September.
"Peace will not be possible until the drone strikes are stopped," Khan said.
He called on Sharif to "come clean" on whether the Pakistani government’s national security policy included covert endorsement of U.S. drone strikes against leaders of the Taliban insurgency.
Upon his appointment as prime minister in June, Sharif had publicly criticized Pakistan’s powerful army of conducting a duplicitous policy of condemning drone strikes it had privately asked the U.S. to carry out.
How disruptive the blockade would prove to be to NATO transport capabilities was unclear. There was little sign that the blockade had much popular support, and Khan found himself under fire Sunday for setting it in motion.
Liberal politicians asked Khan why he had not mounted similar protests against recent terrorist attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the rest of Pakistan, while cleric politicians accused him of hypocrisy because the provincial government he controls allegedly had sought $500 million in financial aid from the United States – a claim Khan denies.
In Islamabad, the minister for information, Pervez Rasheed, accused Khan of being "hell-bent on ruining Pakistan’s relations with the international community".
Under Pakistan’s democratic constitution, the federal government controls foreign and defense policy, while the enforcement of law and order is the responsibility of the provincial governments.
Khan’s party had initially planned to blockade NATO supplies using the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government, but changed tack after lawyers warned it could create a constitutional crisis that would threaten Pakistan’s fragile five-year-old democracy.
Instead, administrators and the police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Sunday did not interfere as Movement for Justice activists stopped container trucks and fuel tankers, and demanded drivers show documents to prove they were not carrying NATO cargoes. Drivers who refused to cooperate were dragged out of their cabins and roughed-up.
"With NATO forces in the process of leaving Afghanistan, I don’t understand what they are trying to achieve – unless, that is, they want to delay the NATO exit," said Saleem Safi, a political analyst and television personality.
Pakistan’s federal government has not said how it plans to end the blockade.
It could seek an injunction from the Pakistan’s independent judiciary, on the grounds that the provincial government-backed blockade violates the federal government’s constitutional writ over defense and foreign policy.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.