Dera Ismail Khan, Oct 7 – Leading a convoy of thousands, the former cricketer was within striking distance of South Waziristan, where the CIA uses remote-controlled planes in the fight against Islamist militants, when he abruptly turned back.
Later Khan said he had changed plan because of warnings from the army and the risk of becoming stuck after the military-imposed curfew.
Addressing an impromptu rally of his supporters, he said the convoy had still been a huge success because he had gone to areas his political rivals “can only look at on maps”.
“We want to give a message to America that the more you carry out drone attacks, the more people will hate you,” Khan told the crowd of around 2,500 supporters. But after two days of travel, the U-turn seemed to surprise some, including a senior party official who got out of his car on the heat-baked roadside surrounded by arid scrubland and declared he had no idea what was going on.
Others expressed anger, saying Khan was more interested in using the event to burnish his popularity before a general election due at some point in the next six months.
“I am very disappointed,” said Khalil Khan Dawar, an oil industry worker who had travelled all day to get to the edge of the tribal agency. “We had to get to South Waziristan. For him this is not just about drones, it is about popularity and elections.”
Some have also questioned the relevance of Kotkai, the town in South Waziristan where Khan hoped to hold his rally, to the drone debate. Most drone attacks now take place in North Waziristan, and Pakistani army efforts to wrest control from militants have forced many of Kotkai’s residents to leave.
The abandonment of the much-publicised attempt to reach Kotkai was the second sudden change of plan on the same day. Earlier Khan had appeared to reassure a largely female delegation of the US peace group Code Pink that there would be no attempt to enter the tribal areas and that instead a rally would be held in the town of Tank.
By midday it was decided to push on regardless, apparently out of a desire not to disappoint the throngs of people who had joined his convoy along the road from the capital, Islamabad. That was despite the all-too evident disapproval of authorities who had placed shipping containers across the road at three different points.
The vehicles, including buses crammed with supporters waving the red and green flag of Khan’s political party, ground to a halt as throngs of protesters worked to push the obstacles out of the way, in one instance destroying a small building in the process.
Indignities and discomforts are nothing new to the mostly middle-aged and female activists of Code Pink, some of whom have been arrested while campaigning against US drone strikes. But being trapped on a bus travelling towards Pakistan’s tribal areas proved too much even for the most hardened of campaigners. “We had only one toilet break in nine hours,” said Medea Benjamin, leader of the 35-strong team of Americans who had agreed to join Khan on the march. They chose not to continue into, in the words of Benjamin, a “chaotic” situation.
To add to their miseries, their minders urged them to stay behind the curtains of their bus – emblazoned on its side with huge images of people killed by drone strikes – throughout much of the journey, particularly in many of the areas affected by militant groups. “It was hard for these people because they are protesters and they wanted to get out there,” said Shahzad Akbar, a lawyer who was looking after the group. “But there’s no way we are going to let them get out in some of those towns!”
Billed as a protest against drone strikes, which Khan and his supporters claim kill large numbers of innocent civilians as well as flouting Pakistan’s sovereignty, the procession had the feel of a political rally on wheels. Many of the vehicles eschewed anti-drone slogans and instead carried pictures of PTI politicians anxious to be included on the party’s official ticket in the upcoming elections.