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.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

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.

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