Imran Khan's peace march: the main issues

The Taliban, drones, tribal areas and the destination.

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 Taliban

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.”

Destination

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.

Drones

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.

Pakistan cricketer turned politician Imran Khan waves to supporters at the start of a rally on the outskirts of Islamabad. Photograph: Getty Images.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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