Imran Khan’s much-publicised peace march to South Waziristan has got underway. A large convoy, which includes Clive Stafford Smith, the head of Reprieve, and Cherie Blair’s sister, Lauren Booth, began the 270 mile journey from Islamabad to Waziristan yesterday morning. On Saturday night, it reached the town of Dera Ismail Khan, where the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief congratulated the crowds for managing to defy expectations and get so far. The rally continues today towards the final destination of Kotkai, although in his speech, Khan was cautious about how far they’d get.
The march has been the subject of intense publicity and scrutiny for months, both internationally and within Pakistan. Here’s a short guide to some of the main issues.
Entering the tribal areas
Pakistan’s federally administered border areas have always been a lawless, tribal region. For years, access to the area has been restricted because of the complex war being fought between the Pakistani military and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. While this means that Khan’s decision to march through the area at all is a bold one, it has also meant wrangling over security and access with the military and the Taliban. Khan is optimistic, saying that the people of Waziristan will provide security.
But there is always the risk that Khasadars (tribal policemen) could refuse access to villages at the last minute: forced entry would be a PR disaster, so there’s a question mark over how far the convoy will get. Stopping along the road yesterday, Khan said: “We are not going to fight anyone in Waziristan. The basic aim is to bring peace in that area. If we are asked to halt, we will stop.” This was notably more cautious than an earlier impromptu address at Mianwali, when he said that nothing would stop them from reaching South Waziristan.
Some of the more cynical local commentators have noted that the march is not venturing into North Waziristan, although it’s likely this would have been nigh on impossible.
The question of how the Taliban would respond to the march has dominated discussion. Would they bomb it? Provide security given the common cause? Prevent access altogether? A spokesman yesterday dismissed the suggestion by Khan and other members of his PTI party that the Taliban would provide security for the march. Ehsanullah Ehsan said: "Our mujahideen are not so priceless that we deploy them to protect a westernised and secular personality." He did not reveal whether the group planned to attack the convoy or not.
Although some commentators in Pakistan suggested that the Taliban’s dismissal of Khan as a pro-western stooge seeking only to further his own career would be damaging, it may be a blessing in disguise that the group has distanced itself. Nicknamed “Citizen Khan” and the “clean-shaven mullah”, many are suspicious of Khan’s dealings with the Taliban. He has picked up on this contradiction, saying yesterday that he’s been accused of working with the militants, “But now some people are saying that I am working for the west.”
The march is going to end in the South Waziristan town of Kotkai. Yet some have questioned whether this was the appropriate choice. The Dawn newspaper explains:
It was at Kotkai that Ustad-i-Fidayeen had established his first camp to train suicide bombers who would unleash a reign of terror on the Pakistanis. Killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan in October 2010 — much to the relief of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies — Qari has left behind a faculty that will continue to churn out devout followers to haunt Pakistanis for many, many years to come.
So, had Imran thought about the political significance of choosing a venue for his peace rally to protest drones, he would certainly not have chosen Kotkai.
The Mahsud heartland is the birthplace of the TTP [Pakistani Taliban] which has waged a relentless war against the Pakistani state, both within and from its sanctuaries in Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan provinces.
While organisers have claimed there will be 100,000 people at the final rally in Kotkai – and there were certainly huge crowds at Dera Ismail Khan last night – the procession could still end at an earlier point.
Amid all these controversies and logistical questions, let’s not forget the issue in hand. The stated aim of the peace rally is to highlight the impact of drone warfare and express solidarity with the population of Waziristan, although it is of course being viewed as part of Khan’s election campaign.
Drones have increasingly become a huge flashpoint within Pakistan, where they are seen as yet another assault on sovereignty by the US, and internationally, due to the grave human rights issues. I covered the issue for the NS earlier this year: an estimated 10 civilians are killed for every militant, while prescriptions of anti-depressants have exponentially increased in the area. The negative impact was laid bare by a recent report by Stanford and New York law schools which concluded that drones kill large numbers of civilians and increase recruitment to militant groups. Working with Reprieve, Khan has done a significant amount towards getting the world talking about the impact of unmanned aircraft and the human side of the war on terror.