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.

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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.