“Stop the U.S. drone strikes, and block NATO routes,” screamed hundreds of supporters of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) — the party headed by the popular cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan — on a cold sunny day in Peshawar. According to locals in Dera Ismail Khan, a small town near the Torkham border of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), many workers of the party were joined by the Taliban and other militants in another protest against drone strikes, warning that they would make sure to block NATO routes if the drone strikes do not stop.
“NATO routes have always been a problem for the Taliban,” said Rahat Shinwari a local contractor. He added that “they have been harassing us to join them in these protests.”
Shinwari and many other locals do not seem happy with these protests, but many join them due to peer pressure and at times coercion, he says.
Supporters of PTI, which is also the governing party in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province in northwest Pakistan, held up posters and shouted slogans during their protest against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, in Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan. Their main and central demand is to block NATO routes. Many truck drivers have reported being abused passing through northwest Pakistan while driving trucks carrying NATO troop supplies and equipment.
For the U.S., these drone strikes are an integral part of the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda and have proven to be highly efficient in the fight against militancy. The U.S. leads the NATO coalition of troops battling the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
These protests came a day after Imran Khan said that PTI would prevent NATO supply trucks from traveling to Afghanistan and returning to Pakistan through KPK until the United States halts drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Hundreds of protesters checked the documents of all truck drivers headed toward Afghanistan from Peshawar as they passed through a tollbooth.
Some truck drivers have openly complained about the mistreatment by PTI workers at the tollbooths, while some refused to give a statement to the media.
Hamid Khan told The Diplomat: “Two boys from the PTI pulled me out of my truck when I told them I am not carrying any NATO supplies.” Khan said he takes commercial goods to Afghanistan regularly and works under a contractor in Peshawar. He has been working as a truck driver for nine years and will lose his livelihood if the route closes. “My whole family of 12, including my parents and children, will suffer as it is this job that pays for our living and household expenses.” He says his parents are old and have significant medical expenditures. “None of the truck drivers are in support of this NATO route blockage,” Khan said. He continued that the PTI workers took him out of his truck, pulled him by his shirt and both physically and verbally abused him.
Video of one of these incidents was shown by Pakistan’s local mainstream Urdu channel GEO NEWS.
Another driver, Gul Zaman, told a reporter that he was taken out of his truck before he could reach for his documents in the glove compartment. “They dragged me out,” Zaman said. “We are also concerned about drone attacks, but they shouldn’t come down heavy on us like this,” he added.
The KPK Police was present at the scene but interviewees say the police did not intervene to stop the protesters, some of whom were carrying wooden batons.
Pervez Rashid, the Federal Information Minister, accused Imran Khan of trying to damage Pakistan’s relationship with NATO and neighboring Afghanistan. “Anyone who wants to disturb our relations with neighbors is not serving the country,” Rashid said. “Because of Imran Khan, we could be isolated in the world.”
Although Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was vocal in his criticism of drone strikes during his visit to Washington in October, the United States has shown no indication of ceasing in the use of drones — a tool it views as vital for battling Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Pakistan has been a key land route for NATO troops and their supplies in Afghanistan. Pakistani routes are now increasingly being used to ship equipment out of Afghanistan as the U.S. seeks to withdraw most of its combat troops from the country by the end of 2014. The routes were closed for seven months in the past, after a dozen Pakistani soldiers were killed by U.S. airstrikes in November 2011. The route was finally reopened when the United States apologized after several months of delay. The Pakistani Taliban have consistently threatened Pakistan’s government, stating that they will retaliate if the NATO route is not blocked. A recent statement by the Taliban lauded Imran Khan’s efforts to assist in blockading the routes.