Former Pakistan cricket captain turned leading opposition politician Imran Khan has vowed that if he becomes the country’s elected leader next year he will order the nation’s air force to shoot down U.S. drones that have killed hundreds of people along the border with Afghanistan.
Khan, who has long spoken out against U.S. military activity in Pakistan (as well as U.S. military aid to Pakistan), plans to lead a march into the tribal regions of South Waziristan to protest the American missile program.
As the chief of Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf, or PTI, party, Khan has transformed himself from the playboy cricketer to a pious Muslim politician and thorn in the side of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP.
During a television talk show appearance in Pakistan earlier this week, Khan explained that he would order the air force to shoot down drones only if the U.S. government refused to cease the controversial program.
The U.S., which does not publicly comment on its drone attacks, has used the unmanned devices to target known terrorists not only in Pakistan, but also Yemen and elsewhere.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggests that up to as many as 900 Pakistani civilians have been killed by drone missions over the past eight years.
Pakistanis like Khan have countered that the strikes kill too many civilians and represent a breach of national sovereignty. Khan also believes that the drone missions only serve to further radicalize young Pakistanis.
“[Drones are] totally counterproductive,” he told BBC. “The [idea] that it is only killing al Qaeda is a myth. The people will tell you that the vast majority of people killed are either innocent civilians or some sort of low-level militants.”
He also accused the current PPP government of President Asif Ali Zardari of secretly supporting the U.S. drone strikes.
“This [Zardari] government is completely complicit in it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Khan’s planned march to the tribal area has raised fears over his safety in the lawless region, which is haphazardly controlled by Taliban and al Qaeda. He even plans to take Western media with him to document the danger posed to ordinary civilians by U.S. drones.
“The tribes have got in touch with the militants, and the tribes have told us that it’s fine -- they have no objections to [our march],” Khan said at a news conference, according to Independent News Pakistan.
“I still don’t understand why is the government [Islamabad] going to stop us? When they know neither the militants nor the tribal areas are objecting to this, and certainly the army’s not objecting to this.”
Not surprisingly, Khan is frequently criticized by Pakistan’s establishment politicians as a lightweight and a “celebrity.”
Syed Ali Musa Gilani, son of former premier Yusuf Raza Gilani, said Khan’s rally in the tribal areas amounts to nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.