People's anger over continued US drone strikes was evident in the massive rally organized by the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party led by Imran Khan. Tens of thousands blocked the ring road in Peshawar leading to Torkham border with Afghanistan. They demanded an immediate end to drone strikes that have killed thousands of people in Pakistan since they were first launched in 2004.
November 23, 2013, 09:03 EST
Tens of thousands of demonstrators led by Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan blocked the ring road in Peshawar leading to the Torkham border today. They were protesting US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas and now even the settled areas. The road is used to truck Nato troop supplies and equipment in and out of Afghanistan.
PTI allies in the provincial assembly, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and Awami Jamhoori Ittehad (AJIP), also participated in the sit-in. Protesters shouted slogans such as “Down with America” and “Stop the drone strikes.”
''We will put pressure on America, and our protest will continue if drone attacks are not stopped,'' Imran Khan told the thousands of protesters.
There was massive police presence to provide security although the crowd, despite its huge size, was largely disciplined. PTI heads the government in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The latest protest was sparked by a US drone strike on a madrassa near Tall, a town in Hangu district located about 50 miles from the Afghan border. At least eight people were killed in the November 21 drone strikes.
Hitherto, US drone strikes were carried out in the tribal areas of Pakistan concentrating mainly on North Waziristan. The US alleges that this is the stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban whose leader, Hakeemullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike on November 1.
Four of Mehsud’s associates were killed with him as he came out of a meeting to consider an offer by the Pakistani government to hold peace talks. A Pakistani delegation was due to visit Miranshah in North Waziristan the following day.
Most observers in Pakistan viewed the American strike as a deliberate attempt to sabotage the peace talks.
The strike on Tall seminary in which several members of the Haqqani network were killed is seen as another escalation in the US illegal drone war on Pakistan.
The Pakistani government led by Nawaz Sharif has adopted an ambivalent stand on the drone strikes. After every strike, the foreign office issues a routine statement saying these strikes are not helpful and that they violate Pakistan’s sovereignty but then continues with business as usual.
Pakistan has the ability to shoot down drones but no such action has been taken. Further, the federal government that has jurisdiction over approval for Nato supplies into Afghanistan has refused to terminate the arrangement despite repeated drone strikes.
Even while Nato supplies through the KP province were blocked, they continue through Baluchistan. The Pakistani federal government has given no indication that it intends to do anything about it.
Meanwhile Imran Khan told reporters in Islamabad before heading to Peshawar that the sit-in would continue until the drone strikes stopped. He also took the Sharif government to task for its inaction.
Khan has been a vocal critic of drone strikes for nine years. Now that his party is in power in th KP province, he can put this policy into practice. The US may not stop drone strikes but life can be made more difficult for it if the Peshawar-Torkham route, the main supply route, is blocked for any extended period.
In November 2011, the Pakistan army blocked Nato supplies after US forces attacked a border post killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. The army demanded an apology from the US that was reluctantly offered many months later.
How long will the current stoppage last is difficult to predict.