The Taliban consider the term "liberal" to mean "Godless," and this interpretation has rankled relations between Pakistan's popular cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, even though both liberals and radical Islamists both agree that the U.S. policy on drone strikes in the country's tribal areas is a common enemy.
Earlier this week, a Taliban spokesman interviewed at a compound in Waziristan, a mountainous and wild region in northwest Pakistan, said his group would target Khan, 59, for assassination if he were to move forward with his planned anti-drone-strike demonstration in a Taliban stronghold near the Afghan border.
Taliban representative Ahsanullah Ahsan said his organization would send suicide bombers after Khan, who is running to become Pakistan's next president, but apparently Taliban mullahs of the quetta shura, the group's leadership council, are backing down a bit from that declaration.
The spokesman said Thursday the leaders are meeting to decide whether the man they consider a kafir (infidel) would be allowed unmolested to lead a march of thousands in Waziristan in September in opposition to the U.S. drone attacks that has the support of the current Pakistani government.
But, "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," Ahsan said in an email to the Associated Press in a report published Thursday.
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Khan, who is running in next year's presidential race under the Pakistan Movement for Justice Party he founded in 1996, has reached out to the tribal regions in an attempt to garner wide support for his race to the Aiwan-e-Sadr, the presidential palace in Islamabad. The Taliban opposes the elections because they consider them secular, and it has in the past made threats that it would target anyone participating in the process.
Khan faces an uphill battle in garnering support from the country's ultra-fundamentalist, predominantly Pashtun, Islamists, who form an important constituency for the government. Khan, who led the country's cricket team to victory in the World Cup in 1992, has been trying to shed his former international playboy image. He's earned the nickname "Taliban Khan" by some of the country's urban liberals for his outreach efforts.
The Associated Press met with the Taliban spokesman in a region the Pakistani government says has been largely cleared of Islamic militant activity since an offensive was launched in 2009. But Ahsan arrived with an armed entourage of men brandishing RPGs and AK-47s. As the interview wound down, the AP said the men fired their weapons into the air as Pakistani military artillery fire exploded near the compound where the interview took place.
According to the New American Foundation's research about press reports, there have been 311 drone strikes since 2004 that have killed between 1,879 and 2,887 people. The U.S government considers any adult male killed in these strikes to be militants, but critics of the policy - including the United Nations Human Rights Council -- say civilians are regularly killed or injured in these strikes, and that not every adult male killed in these attacks is a Taliban insurgent. President Barack Obama has greatly increased drone strikes from the previous administration.