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.

Mosul. Photo: Getty
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What Islamic State will do in 2017

In retreat across Syria and Iraq, will the newer terror group emulate the strategy honed by al-Qaeda?

Any predictions of Islamic State's demise are premature. During the surge towards Mosul at the end of last year, commentators repeatedly suggested this marked the beginning of the end for the extremist group. Yet, it still has the ability to launch attacks against its enemies both within Iraq and Syria, but also further afield. These trends are likely to continue, although security forces are increasingly learning how to mitigate the threat the group poses. The risk, however, is that the threat will continue to mutate.

The prospect of IS finding a way to regroup on the ground in Syria and Iraq can't be ruled out. While Iraqi forces are pursuing a systematic approach to retaking Mosul, it is possible the group will melt into the countryside and wait for attention to shift before surging back. How the Iraqi forces take back the city and whether they provide those in Sunni areas with reassurance over their political future will determine whether IS is able to find a supportive base from which it can rebuild. In Syria, while confusion continues to reign, it will continue to find a way to embed somewhere.

But there is no doubt that the group has lost some of its lustre and power. While there are still some individuals choosing to go and fight alongside the group, the numbers have fallen dramatically. A report in September last year from US intelligence indicated that from a peak of 2,000 a month, only about 50 individuals were assessed as crossing the border each month to go and fight alongside a range of groups including IS in Syria and Iraq.

In fact, the biggest concern is the flow of people back. Foreign fighters disenfranchised by losses on the ground or tired after years of conflict are heading home. Some are no doubt eager to seek a conflict-free life, but others are being sent back to build networks or launch attacks. German authorities believe they disrupted at least two such cells in June and September of last year, linking them to the Paris bombers and unclear whether they were sent back to launch attacks or prepare ground for others. Similarly, Italian intelligence has raised concerns about the return of Balkan jihadists as a threat to Europe, pointing to the believed return to the region of Kosovan IS leader Lavdrim Muhaxheri with somewhere between 300-400 ISIS fighters. They have already been linked to one specific plot against a football game, and suspected of potentially again laying ground for others.

These individuals will join the continuing ranks of "lone wolf" or "failed traveller" attackers that we have seen in Europe and around the world in the past year. In Anis Amri's attack in Berlin, or the murder of the priest in Rouen, we see individuals who apparently aspired to travel to Syria, failed to do so, and instead perpetrated attacks in Europe. We also see individuals latching on to the group's violent ideology to launch attacks. This includes Omar Mateen, who butchered 50 in a shooting at an Orlando nightclub which he claimed to be doing on behalf of the group - although no clear link was uncovered. Given the basic methods used and the broad range of targets, it is highly likely that more of these loners (either instigated or self-starting) will emerge to wreak havoc in the coming year.

Finally, it is important to not forget IS affiliates around the world like Boko Haram in Nigeria, IS in Khorasan (Afghanistan), Sinai, Libya, or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. There has always been some element of scepticism around the legitimacy of the links these groups have to the core operation, with speculation that some of their pledges of allegiance are more an expression of anger at al Qaeda or some other local group. Yet there is usually some evidence to support the association – most prominently with IS core in the Levant acknowledging them in their material. As we see the group's core shrink in strength, these regional affiliates could rise up to take greater prominence or to take on a greater leadership mantle.

It is also possible that the core group in Syria/Iraq will use these affiliates to launch attacks or re-establish themselves. We have already seen how individuals linked to the Paris attacks were reportedly killed in Libya, and there is growing evidence that IS in Khorasan, the Afghan affiliate, has seen some back and forth of fighters. In future, it is possible that we may see these groups rise up in a more pronounced way. More acute problems might start to emerge from Libya, Afghanistan and Sinai where substantial affiliates appear to operate, or Nigeria, Pakistan or Southeast Asia where there is a more confusing aspect to the ISIS affiliates. There, the degree of strong connection with the core organisation is unclear, with it sometimes seeming that the adoption of the IS banner is rather an expression of local divisions between militant groups. If the pressure on the group in the Levant intensifies over the next year, these groups might look like tempting ways of distracting western security agencies through attacks that cause governments to re-allocate resources away from the Levant and thereby take some pressure off the group's leadership in Syria and Iraq.

This would emulate al-Qaeda’s strategy. There have been moments historically when the core organisation pushed its affiliates to launch attacks to try to take pressure off the core group. This happened between al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate between 2003-2009. Similarly, al-Qaeda has realised that sometimes not declaring loud Caliphates and committing public atrocities such as televised beheadings, but instead committing targeted acts of terror and endearing itself to local populations to build support from the ground up, is a more productive way forwards. 

How the outside world will react is a further unknown element. Donald Trump has stated he will eliminate the group, but he has not outlined a strategy for how he will achieve this. There is little evidence that the US could do much more than deploy greater force on the ground (whose ultimate goal and success would be unclear). The announced Saudi alliance to counter the group has not so far done a huge amount, and European powers remain secondary players. It is unclear that any country is preparing a Russian-style push with the potential human and political risks attached, meaning we are unlikely to see a dramatic change.

For IS, the conflict they are fighting is a millennial one for God's greater glory and temporal timelines like our calendar are largely irrelevant. Dramatic events like the loss of cities or leadership figures may change its dynamic, and in some cases significantly degrade its capacity, but are unlikely to eradicate the group. Rather, it will continue to evolve and grow regionally primarily, but also internationally, with attacks against western targets a continuing interest.

Once the war in Syria settles down, and Iraq becomes unified, discussions may be possible about how to eradicate the group, but this is unlikely to take place in the next 12 months given the continuing fighting on the ground in the face of a ceasefire which in any case includes neither IS or al-Qaeda affiliates, meaning another year of the world remaining in state of high alert is likely. Were peace to break out, IS would find itself in a complicated situation, but this would require a very substantial change of situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. That, unfortunately, looks some way off.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of ‘We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen’