In a turnaround from their earlier threat to assassinate Pakistan’s cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, the Pakistani Taliban have extended him support during his upcoming address in the lawless South Waziristan, a tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, the Telegraph has reported.
Khan’s unrelenting opposition to the U.S. drone strikes against the militants in the territory has reportedly softened the Taliban’s stance.
The newspaper quoted senior commanders of the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as saying that a recent meeting headed by the group's leader Hakimullah Mehsud overturned the group’s earlier decision to send suicide bombers to assassinate Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party leader Khan.
"We are ready to provide them security if they need. We endorses Imran Khan's plea that drone strikes are against our sovereignty," a TTP spokesperson told the Telegraph. "The anti-drone rallies should have been taken out by the religious leaders long ago but Imran had taken the lead and we wouldn't harm him or his followers."
Khan will address a rally Oct. 7 in Kotkai town in South Waziristan, also the hometown of the Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah and his cousin Qari Hussain, believed to be a mentor to the suicide bombers, the News Daily reported.
PTI leader Asad Qaiser confirmed the reports of the Taliban’s friendlier approach to Khan.
“The TTP leaders have approached us and their response was positive,” Qaiser was quoted as saying by the Pakistani media.
“The purpose of our peace march is to inform the world about the destruction that the so-called war on terror has caused to the Pakhtuns in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas,” he said.
But the Taliban offering protection for a rally doesn’t mean that Khan, who had a hard time shedding his “playboy cricketer” image, has gained the Taliban’s acceptance.
However, his efforts to reach out to the fundamentalists of Pakistan may be paying off and may have cost him the support of the nation’s liberals who have nicknamed him “Taliban Khan.”
A Taliban spokesperson said in August that they didn’t have any sympathy for an “infidel” like Khan.
"It’s sure and clear that we don't have any sympathy with Imran Khan, neither do we need his sympathy, as he himself claims to be a liberal, and we see liberals as infidels," Taliban representative Ahsanullah Ahsan had told the Associated Press.
Khan, vying for the presidential chair in the election next year, has reached out to the volatile tribal regions in an attempt to garner wider support for his race.