Islamabad, Pakistan — In his upstart campaign to become Pakistan’s next prime minister, Imran Khan, a magnetic former cricket star and ardent foe of U.S. policy, draws delirious crowds by the tens of thousands who seemingly would follow him anywhere. But this weekend, Khan, who wants to lead his supporters into the dangerous tribal region to protest CIA drone attacks, appears to be headed for a roadblock: Pakistan’s formidable military.
Khan has promised to stage a massive rally Sunday in South Waziristan, where the Pakistani army has tamped down but not defeated a fierce Islamist insurgency. Khan picked the location partly for political stagecraft: For years, he has called for an end to the drone campaign, which rains missiles on al-Qaeda and other militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas, including South Waziristan.
This week, Khan, who for two successive years has polled as the nation’s most popular politician, assembled about 35 drone opponents, principally from the U.S. women-led antiwar group Codepink, to join what he calls his “tsunami” for change. Now the question dominating the political dialogue is whether that wave will be allowed to crash into Taliban territory.
The military insists that the decision rests with the civilian leadership, but, in fact, the army controls access to the restive tribal belt, which borders Afghanistan. The debate highlights tensions inherent in Pakistan’s governance: Although the politicians in Parliament and the executive branch have a vote on domestic and foreign policy, the army and its spy services essentially hold veto power.
“This is a peace march. We are not there to pick a fight with anyone,” Khan said in an interview Thursday. “The army, if they think they can’t provide protection beyond a certain point, they’ll tell us that.”
In the past, some analysts have portrayed Khan as a military-backed candidate because of his support for some right-wing Islamists who are considered proxies for Inter-Services Intelligence ISI), the chief spy agency. But as his party, Tehrik-i-Insaaf (Justice Movement), has gained significant popular support, he has been talking more forcefully about reining in the security establishment to make it bow before the constitution.
In the interview at his spacious but simply appointed home outside the capital, he described major political party leaders as “nurtured by military dictators.” Referring to the generals, he said, “They don’t allow natural leadership to come up because they want controllables.”
Khan’s plan is to depart Saturday from Islamabad with a convoy, including foreigners and journalists, to reach the South Waziristan border by nightfall and then head to the rally site about 30 miles farther west.
Local authorities have voiced concern about the march, which Khan’s party predicts will draw 100,000 people. (Previous rallies in Lahore and Karachi drew double that or more.) Pakistan’s seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas are generally off-limits to anyone except the people who live there.
The rally-goers risk attack by the Pakistani Taliban, an insurgent branch that has been particularly ruthless in its war against Pakistan’s government, beheading soldiers and releasing videos of the slaughter.
Khan said he had secured pledges of protection from some tribal elders in South Waziristan who sounded out the Pakistani Taliban and heard back no objections. But the insurgent group, known here as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, said Friday that it has no intention of providing security for the candidate.
It denounced him as a “liberal secular person” and toady of the West.
“We don’t need any sympathy from him,” spokesman Ihsan-ullah-Ihsan said in an e-mail to the news media. “What are our plans against anyone? Revealing them is against military tactics, so we are not going to state anything about that.”
One concern within the army is that a bombing or other attack against the marchers would highlight that South Waziristan is still not pacified even though military operations began there three years ago — a case that is likely to be made by the media if such an incident were to occur.
“We’re not going to risk our foreign guests in any sort of incident,” Khan said. If Taliban leaders “tell us we don’t want you to come there, or just come to the border, we’ll do that.”
The Pakistani Parliament has passed resolutions three times in recent years demanding an end to CIA drone attacks, which began in 2004 and have markedly increased under President Obama’s administration — estimated to number nearly 200.
U.S. officials have no intention of stopping their use: The U.S. military sees the remotely piloted armed craft as an efficient, effective weapon to eliminate hard-core Islamist militants that plague both the U.S. and Pakistani armies. Officials say targeting is far more surgically precise than at the beginning of the program.
Despite overwhelming public opposition, drone attacks have continued — with the tacit approval, some analysts say, of the Pakistani army, intelligence service and government leaders.
Khan said the point of the march is to publicize the strikes’ civilian casualties, or as he put it in a newspaper op-ed Thursday, “a trail of dead women, dead children and dead old people with no one held accountable.”
Some of Khan’s critics say the march is nothing more than a dangerous publicity stunt to play to the anti-Americanism rampant in Pakistan.
“Imran is an ignorant man and likes to live in his dreams, but the government is fully cognizant of its responsibilities and cannot allow any adventurism in the tribal areas where the situation is already fragile,” Masood Kousar, the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which adjoins the tribal belt, told the Express Tribune, an English-language daily.
In the interview, Khan retorted: “The whole idea is to draw attention to this plight. It is not meant to show some bravado.”
Twenty years ago, Khan gained the undying affection of many of his countrymen as the first (and so far only) cricket team captain to lead Pakistan to a World Cup victory. He turned politician in the mid-’90s, forming his own party, and has been running relentlessly in hopes of capturing a significant bloc of seats in parliamentary elections expected to be held in March.
On Thursday, he talked politics into the evening as many Pakistanis had their radios and TV sets fixed on an International Cricket Council World Twenty20 semifinals match, in which Pakistan fell to Sri Lanka.
Instead his mind was on his past forays into the tribal region to research a book, “Warrior Race,” his 1993 account of his travels throughout the area where his own Pashtun family tree has roots.
“I don’t know where they will stop us,” he said of the weekend caravan. “If they allow us to go where we want to hold the rally, it will be fascinating. You will actually see this stark country. It’s wild and actually quite striking.”
Michele Langevine Leiby and Saleem Mehsud contributed to this report.