TANK, Pakistan – Pakistani cricket legend Imran Khan emerged as a powerful political force late last year by engineering massive rallies in big cities. On Sunday, he failed in his bid to take his people-power campaign to the unlikeliest of venues: South Waziristan, a perilous tribal region that remains a stronghold for the Pakistani Taliban insurgency.
Khan held his rally anyway 25 miles short of the South Waziristan border, an event trumpeted as a demonstration against U.S. drone missile strikes on Islamic militants in Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas. But among analysts and most political commentators, the rally was criticized as a poorly disguised attempt at revving up support for Khan’s campaign ahead of national elections next year.
Criticism was particularly intense, given the risk involved in trying to lead thousands of supporters into South Waziristan, where pockets of militancy thrive. That risk was aggravated by the inclusion of more than 30 U.S. citizens, members of an anti-drone group called Code Pink who flew to Pakistan to join Khan’s rally.
Led by Khan, demonstrators in a long caravan of vans and cars left Islamabad, the capital, Saturday morning and stayed overnight near the western city of Dera Ismail Khan before trying to reach Kotkai, a small village in a relatively peaceful section of South Waziristan.
At one point, it appeared that Khan was on the verge of achieving his goal. At two locations on the road to South Waziristan, demonstrators got out of their cars and moved large freight containers that had been placed by police to block the path. Dozens of police manned those locations, but stood idly by as demonstrators plowed through.
But at a final checkpoint just miles from the South Waziristan border, Pakistani army troops sealed the road with cordons of barbed wire and ordered rally participants to turn back. Last week, government officials had warned Khan that his demonstration would not be allowed into South Waziristan because of security concerns.
“You are not allowed to go beyond this point,” South Waziristan’s top administrative official, Shahid Ullah, told demonstrators as he stood on the other side of the barbed wire. “The magnitude of security risk is much higher beyond this point.”
The demonstrators returned to Tank, where Khan, standing atop a vehicle, denounced the U.S. drone campaign as counterproductive.