The Washington Post

Pakistan party drops its blockade of NATO supply routes

Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician and head of Pakistan’s Movement for Justice Party Imran Khan, center, in August 2013. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

A major Pakistani political party announced Thursday that it was ending its blockade of NATO supply routes through the northern part of the country, capping a three-month protest over U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani soil.

In a statement, the Movement for Justice party said it was halting the demonstration in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province out of respect for the country’s judiciary. On Tuesday, the Peshawar High Court ruled that the protest, which forced the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan to use other transport routes, was unconstitutional.

The Movement for Justice party, led by former cricket star Imran Khan, began the protest Nov. 24 after the United States conducted several drone strikes in northwest Pakistan.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif objected to the blockade, saying only the national government had the authority to take such action. Last year, Pakistan’s government signed an agreement with the United States allowing coalition forces to use Pakistani highways through 2015.

But Khan used his authority as the chief political figure in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to rally local opposition to the U.S. drone policy. Movement for Justice party workers established 24-hour checkpoints on highways that cross the province and searched for trucks carrying NATO supplies.

In early December, U.S. and coalition officials suspended use of those routes because they feared for the safety of drivers who haul NATO supplies in and out of Afghanistan. The coalition, instead, diverted supplies through southern Pakistan or through northern Afghanistan into Uzbekistan.

In recent weeks, however, the protests had thinned considerably. And U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that there was no major disruption to ongoing efforts to withdraw most remaining troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

But the protests helped Khan elevate his profile and sparked considerable debate inside Pakistan about U.S. drone strikes.

Early this month, The Washington Post reported that the Obama administration had agreed to severely limit the number of drone strikes inside Pakistan while Sharif’s government attempted to reach a peace agreement with the Pakistani Taliban.

There has been no U.S. drone strike inside Pakistan since December, which the Movement for Justice party also cited as a factor in its decision to end its protest.

The party “felt that the pressure of the blockade had already resulted in a shift in the Obama administration’s drone policy, and as a result drones had been stopped for the present” time, the party, also known as Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, said in its statement.

But Khan, who had been pushing for a peaceful solution to Pakistan’s struggle against Islamist militancy, also appears to be shifting his views about how best to combat the Taliban.

Two weeks ago, after the Taliban executed 23 Pakistani soldiers, Sharif’s government broke off preliminary peace talks with the group. Pakistan’s military has also launched airstrikes targeting Taliban militants and foreign fighters in North Waziristan, near the border with Afghanistan.

The Pakistani army also has been preparing for a possible broader ground offensive targeting Taliban hideouts.

On Monday, Khan’s party issued a statement acknowledging that the peace process was not likely to be successful. It also said it could support military action against the Taliban as a last resort as long as Sharif could guarantee the safety of civilians.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.

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