Photo by @NaveedPTI

Over thirty American activists traveled to Pakistan to draw attention to US drone strike policy. The delegation has joined a historic two-day peace march from the nation’s capital Islamabad to the village of Kotkai in South Waziristan, where a major rally is to be held. It left on Friday, October 6.

This is not a march where tens of thousands of people come out into the streets for some hours in the day and then disappear after walking a couple miles. The march with Americans from the peace activist group CODEPINK is the first attempt of thousands of people to reach the tribal areas of Pakistan, which are typically off-limits to non-residents. It happens to be backed by Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), a political party in Pakistan, whose chief, Imran Khan, a former cricket star, is said to be leading the march.

DAWN, a Pakistan-based media organization, reported over a thousand people joined a “convoy of hundreds of vehicles.” It reached “Khan’s hometown of Mianwali Saturday evening.” There Khan delivered a “small address” with five thousand people. He declared, “The government tried to make the march unsuccessful but we are determined to bring peace to the country.” He called the march a “trailer for change” and condemned government efforts to “make” the march “fail.”

It is uncertain whether the march will reach Kotkai, a city that has seen its share of violence caused by Taliban and al Qaeda forces. The Frontier Post reported the march might not go much further than Dera Ismail Khan, where it will be stopping overnight. The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government is reportedly unhappy with the march and the “provincial government” has raised the issue “of over hundred foreign media personnel and human rights activists coming with Khan,” who “possess visas but did not obtain [a No Objection Certificate (NOC)] to enter DI Khan or SWA.” Without proper permits, the personnel, activists and any foreigners are not likely to get into South Waziristan.

As one might have expected in a scenario like this, there are many rumors of possible suicide attacks against the march. US diplomats showed activists a one-line statement indicating it had sources that an attack was planned and encouraged them not to participate in the march. The militant Punjab faction of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has issued a warning to “participants” that they could face “painful consequences” for marching. The TTP has expressed opposition to the march because Khan is a “secular” and “liberal” man.

There has been suggestion in the media by commentators that Khan and those participating in the march are enabling the Taliban. For example, from an Express Tribune editorial by Ibrahim Pataudi:

Imran has often been, somewhat, jokingly referred to as Taliban Khan for his apologist tendencies, which up till now I have always thought to be a bit unfair. Yet this entire affair of even considering the possibility of relying on the Taliban for security during a political rally is akin to crossing the dangerous line between innocent flirting and unforgivable advance. This is a deplorable and dangerous policy, for if Imran continues to engage and endorse the Pakistani Taliban, it will have the unintended consequence of granting unwanted legitimacy to whatever nutty, far out cause they claim to have. 

This claim that the Taliban would provide security for the rally now appears to have been sheer rumor. The Taliban would not want to get involved and participate in a protest against drone strikes, which are possibly the best recruiting tool for its militant factions that launch attacks and operate in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). And despite whatever legitimate political concerns Pakistanis have with Khan, the claim is propaganda to undercut principled opposition to drone strikes.

Can we agree criticism of drone policy does not mean you are an apologist or enabler of Taliban or any militant group in Pakistan? Wanting an end to carnage caused by America’s arsenal of flying killer robots does not necessarily mean one favors giving militant groups control of entire cities and communities nor does it mean one necessarily favors negotiation with those who have also committed violence against Pakistanis.

Numerous Pakistanis see this march as opening up the possibility of finally ending US drone operations in the country. This is because many Pakistanis apparently share the point of view of Khan, who said the following on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s show The World Tomorrow:

…Never has a country’s ruling elite, for personal benefits, never have they betrayed their people as much as this elite under [President Pervez] Musharraf and the current elite [under Asif Ali Zardari]. Not only have they done this, there have been countless numbers of people who have disappeared in Pakistan on suspicion of terrorism. There were Pakistanis, or people from Pakistani soil, handed over to the Americans on mere suspicion of… of them being involved in some terrorism – and people have disappeared, people are eliminated, suspects are eliminated through drone attacks… um, and not only suspects, their wives, their children, their neighbors are eliminated. Never has there been any enquiry into were these people innocent or not. No country has ever been bombed by its own ally, as we have been bombed in this country. Um, as I said, it’s the most shameful period of our history. Never has a country’s ruling elite betrayed its people so much as this current ruling elite – and for personal benefits, because all of them have bank accounts abroad, they have money lying abroad – and guess what? ‒ the Americans know all about the accounts. They’re illegal, money siphoned off from here.

This moving editorial from a young Pakistani, who could not participate in the march because his parents would not allow him to make a five-day visit to Pakistan, further demonstrates why there is likely much support for this march:

We city dwellers are oblivious to what goes on in the tribal areas – to the sheer terror among lay people – as the predator drones crisscross the skies above. When houses are decimated and turn into tombs, when bodies are shredded to pieces. There have been instances when a drone attack took place causing injuries and death and when those whose lives were spared rushed to help the wounded, another attack took place, killing and maiming many more. The end result is that people are terrified to even offer help after such episodes…

…I salute the Chairman PTI for taking his honourable stand against this atrocity. I, sir, being the youth of Pakistan, stand with you! I may not physically be there with you during the forthcoming Peace March, but I wish you God speed and every success in this noble cause. I can see the cornered tigers rise again to provide succour to the hapless people being targeted without any fault of theirs. Youth of Pakistan is alive today and will frustrate any plans to run our country into ground, be they from our enemies within or without.

With American activists there to represent the humanity of people in America, which the US government would like to suppress, it is an opportunity for media to publicize the march’s collective message to America to stop drone strikes now. It is their chance to try to reach Americans so they can finally understand how the presidential administration has been indifferent to the outrage of the Pakistani government and its people toward the US drone program. It is their time to challenge the public political posture of apathy and insincerity, which US officials have shown toward victims—people they have callously chosen to pretend so often do not really exist because drones are, according to the national security state, weapons so precise they do not kill innocent civilians. [In fact, the US considers civilian deaths a matter that must be classified.]

Whether the march reaches its destination in South Waziristan does not matter. It has tapped into the anger, distress and collective suffering of people who have often felt powerless. As Dr. Amna Buttar, a member of the Punjab Provincial Assembly in Pakistan, has said, the people are well aware of the approximately one hundred and ninety million Pakistanis who have fallen victim to terrorism. The people understand the vicious cycle, how there can be a drone attack and then a terrorist-mediated bombing in response, or a terrorist attack and then a drone strike days later that is seemingly connected.

Lives have been made a living hell because of the US war on terrorism, terror attacks and remote-controlled killings. The peace march is not a stunt by a populist politician or simply a performance by left-wing female peace activists who crave attention and misunderstand Pakistani politics. It is possibly a beginning to a better future for a population that has no control because much of the government must submit to the goals of US empire, and power is concentrated in the hands of Pakistan’s ruling elite.