TANK, Pakistan — Pakistani cricket legend Imran Khan emerged as a powerful political force late last year by engineering massive rallies in big cities. On Sunday, he tried — and failed — to take his people power campaign to the unlikeliest of venues — South Waziristan, a perilous tribal region that remains a viable stronghold for the deadly Pakistani Taliban insurgency.
Khan held his rally anyway in Tank, 25 miles outside of the Waziristan border, an event trumpeted as a demonstration protesting the CIA’s drone missile campaign against Islamic militants in Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas. But among analysts and most political commentators, the rally was criticized as a poorly disguised attempt at revving up support for Khan’s campaign ahead of national elections in 2013.
Criticism was particularly intense, given the risk involved in trying to lead thousands of supporters into South Waziristan, where pockets of militancy still thrive. That risk was aggravated by the inclusion of more than 30 U.S. citizens who are members of an anti-drone group called CODEPINK, and who flew to Pakistan to join Khan’s rally.
Led by Khan, demonstrators in a long caravan of vans and cars left Islamabad on Saturday morning and stayed overnight near the western city of Dera Ismail Khan before making their bid to reach the originally scheduled rally venue at Kotkai, a small village in a relatively peaceful section of South Waziristan.
At one point, it appeared Khan was on the verge of achieving his goal. At two locations on the road to South Waziristan, demonstrators got out of their cars and moved out of the way large freight containers placed by police to block the path. Dozens of police manned those locations, but stood idly as demonstrators plowed their way through.
But at a final checkpoint just miles from the South Waziristan border, Pakistani army troops sealed the road with cordons of barbed wire and ordered rally participants to turn back. Earlier in the week, government officials had warned Khan that his demonstration would not be allowed into South Waziristan because of security concerns, and would be turned away.
“You are not allowed to go beyond this point,” South Waziristan’s top administrative official, Political Agent Shahid Ullah, told demonstrators as he stood on the other side of the barbed wire. “The magnitude of security risk is much higher beyond this point.” At first, demonstrators ignored the warnings, pushed aside the barbed wire and drove on, but were stopped again 100 yards down the road by another row of barbed wire and more soldiers.
Demonstrators then turned around and headed back to Tank, where Khan, standing atop a vehicle, denounced the U.S. drone campaign as counter-productive.
“I have been telling the Americans that drone attacks are only escalating the insurgency,” Khan told throngs of supporters and demonstrators standing shoulder to shoulder. “The people of Waziristan can never be subdued with drone attacks. The more you target them, the greater they will react.”
The rally came at a time when recent poll results show Khan’s campaign momentum slipping. A survey by the International Republican Institute found that support for Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party was at 24%, a 22% drop from where it stood in February. The survey results showed that Khan had fallen behind the country’s other principal opposition party, the PML-N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Khan’s ability to assemble massive, momentum-building rallies became clear late last year, when political gatherings he organized in Lahore and Karachi drew more than 100,000 at each event. Up until those rallies, Khan had been dismissed by most political observers as a fringe politician who for years had been unable to parlay star power from his cricket heyday into votes.
“He’s playing very sharply — the goal is domestic political gain, and nothing beyond that,” said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. “But I don’t think this will help him, because most people will see this as simply a political effort.”
Khan proceeded with the rally despite warnings from factions of the Pakistani Taliban, the country’s homegrown insurgency, to abort the idea. Ihsanullah Ihsan, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, said late last week that earlier reports saying the Taliban would provide Khan security were baseless, and denounced the former cricketer as a “Westernized and secular personality.”
"Imran Khan’s so-called peace march is not in sympathy of drone-hit Muslims," Ihsan said in a statement released to the media. “Instead, it’s an attempt by him to increase in political stature.” Other Taliban factions warned they may decide to attack rally participants if they reached South Waziristan.
The U.S. anti-war demonstrators accompanying Khan said it was important to follow through with the rally despite the security risk. Washington regards drone missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas as a cornerstone of its efforts to neutralize Al Qaeda fighters and other Islamic militant groups that pose a threat to the U.S. and its allies. In Pakistan, however, the tactic is vehemently opposed as a blatant encroachment of the country’s sovereignty, and a source of civilian deaths in the impoverished tribal region.
“The American people are being lied to by our government that says that these attacks are only killing militant people who want to kill Americans, and do not kill innocent people,” Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK, told rally participants Sunday.
Though the drone campaign was the focus of the rally, South Waziristan is not a tribal region heavily targeted by drone attacks. Neighboring North Waziristan has seen many more drone missile strikes over the last couple of years. This year, only four U.S. drone attacks have taken place in South Waziristan, compared with 33 in North Waziristan, according to statistics compiled by the Long War Journal website.
Khan had originally planned to carry out the rally in North Waziristan, but decided that was too risky and shifted the proposed venue to South Waziristan. While pockets of militants still exist in South Waziristan, North Waziristan is home to the deadly Afghan Taliban affiliate known as the Haqqani network as well as cells of Al Qaeda fighters and commanders, and is considered the most dangerous region in Pakistan’s tribal belt.
--Alex Rodriguez and Nasir Khan. Staff writer Rodriguez reported from Islamabad, and special correspondent Khan from Tank, Pakistan.
Photo: Demonstrators led by cricket star turned politician Imran Khan gather Sunday in Tank after their march against U.S. drone strikes was blocked from entering Pakistan's South Waziristan region. Credit: A Majeed / AFP/Getty Images