ISLAMABAD -- As the U.S winds down its war against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, a prominent opposition leader in neighboring Pakistan has stepped up his campaign against Washington's use of pilot-less drones to target militant suspects in the country by threatening to block vital road routes between the two nations.
On Saturday, Imran Khan, Pakistan's former cricket star turned-politician will lead a public protest in Peshawar, capital of the northern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province which is governed by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) or Pakistan justice movement political party.
Khan has threatened to block the main land route through KP used to carry supplies to and from the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan unless the drone strikes stop. If it goes ahead, the protest blockade of the Khyber Pass could trigger a fresh crisis in U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Khan told CBS News he wants to use the protest to inform Americans of the impact the drone strikes have had on life in Pakistan, which remains a vital, if sometimes challenging ally in the U.S. fight against Islamic extremist groups.
The U.S. government considers the drone strikes a potent, legitimate weapon against those groups, which have bases along the rugged, remote border between the two nations.
Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike earlier this month. He was known as a merciless commander of the group who coordinated numerous suicide attacks in Afghanistan, including a brazen attack on a CIA post in the country and a failed bomb plot on New York city’s Times Square. Mehsud was on the U.S. government’s most-wanted list of terrorist, with a $5 bounty on his head. Yet he appeared to live in Pakistan with relative ease, even appearing in a rare television interview with the BBC just three weeks before his death.
U.S. officials have often suggested that Pakistan’s army and the nation's powerful military intelligence agency, known as the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence), maintain links with Islamic militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mehsud’s killing prompted a wave of protests from Pakistan’s government and political leaders.Just this week, another drone strike in KP killed Maulawi Ahmed Jan, a senior commander in the pro-Taliban Haqqani network. Again, Pakistan's government condemned the attack, without reference to the senior terror group’s slain leader.
A western diplomat who spoke to CBS News in Islamabad on the condition of anonymity described him as a "legitimate target," as he was linked to a number of attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Many Pakistanis and global human rights groups, however, lament the strikes as an infringement on the nation’s sovereignty and argue that drones are too indiscriminant a tool of war, killing innocent bystanders along with militants.
Khan told CBS News he feels it "is very important for people in the U.S. to understand what has happened" in his country.
On Saturday, Khan's protest in Peshawar -- the last major frontier town in KP before the Afghan border, will take him to a region at the center of the resistance by al Qaeda and the Taliban. He hopes to use the event not only to launch a blockade of the truck route to Afghanistan, but also to unite Pakistanis in support of his opposition to U.S. drone strikes.
In recent days, Khan has been reminded of the political risk to his government if he chooses to block the supply route. Though the reaction from the U.S. and from Pakistan’s own central government in Islamabad -- led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who himself rose to power vowing to end the U.S. strikes -- remains unclear if the blockade goes ahead, Khan claims the conditions in KP are putting more pressure on him as the regional political leader to speak out.
“What can be worse than what is happening right now? In Pakhtunkhwa [KP] where our government is in power, two of our lawmakers have been murdered, our law minister has been blown up, our ministers are in fear because the policing is not secure. So many policemen have lost their lives,” he told CBS news of the deteriorating security situation. He said U.S. drone strikes only fuel the conflict by making it impossible for Pakistani authorities to hold peace negotiations with the Taliban and by increasing the anti-U.S. sentiments in the region.
In October, U.S.-based Amnesty International published a report calling for the U.S. to be held accountable for the deaths of civilians killed in drone attacks in Pakistan.
"It's time for the USA to come clean about the drones program and hold those responsible for these violations to account," said Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International’s researcher for the report.
It is extremely difficult to get precise figures for the casualties from drone attacks -- both militant and civilian -- as victims are usually buried shortly after their deaths in keeping with Islamic tradition. In the remote border regions where the strikes take place, there are few independent witnesses on-hand to offer unbiased accounts of the strikes.
One U.S. official, who also asked not to be named, told CBS News that Pakistan’s failure to control that rugged region along the Afghan border is the fundamental defense for the drone strikes.
“We can debate the numbers, but the main issue is Pakistan’s failure to take charge. If Pakistan doesn’t maintain control over its territory and that territory becomes a threat to us, then we have to act. People like Hakimullah Mehsud were as much a threat to the U.S. as they were a threat to Pakistan,” said the official.