More than ten thousand people gathered in the streets of Peshawar, Pakistan on Saturday to protest American drone strikes. The demonstrators blocked a NATO supply route used to transport equipment in and out of Afghanistan. While local police initially declined to intervene, on Monday officials said that only peaceful protests, which did not block the road, would be tolerated.
Imran Khan, a former cricketer turned politician, organized the protest and said his followers would block NATO supply trucks until the U.S. stops drone strikes. Khan’s party, the new and very popular Tehreek-Insaf party, said in a statement that the strikes impinge on the country’s sovereignty and called on Pakistani officials to take a stronger stance against the attacks.
Pakistani protesters shout slogans against U.S. drone attacks during a protest last July. (Photo: AFP)
Meanwhile, the Pakistani military deployed its first domestic drone, which will be used by the army and air force for surveillance, according to a Monday press release. Pakistan already uses surveillance drones, but the “Burraq” and “Shahpar” systems are the first developed domestically. The statement did not specify whether the new drones would be armed.
Internal opposition toward U.S. drone attacks escalated in Pakistan this month, as two recent attacks sparked public outcry. A strike November 1st killed the former leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, outraging Pakistani officials, who said the killing of Taliban leaders sabotaged upcoming peace talks. Last Thursday, an American drone fired three missiles into a seminary near the border of Afghanistan, killing six people. According to security officials, two of those killed were students at the seminary and the other four were members of the Haqqani militant group. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif issued a statement following the attacks pressing Washington again to end the strikes.
Demonstrators in Peshawar only show one side of the complex relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Inside the tribal regions, which are often targeted by the attacks, up to 52 percent of inhabitants support the strikes, according to a 2009 poll. While surveying is notoriously difficult to carry out in the border areas linking Pakistan and Afghanistan, 60 percent of those polled said that the strikes weakened militant groups.
Although Pakistani officials publicly denounce the strikes, the U.S. considers them vital in the battle against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. According to documents leaked to the Washington Post in October, the Pakistan’s government has secretly collaborated with U.S. Central Intelligence Agency on some attacks targeting militants in the tribal regions. Approximately 3,600 people have been killed in these strikes, though the percentage of civilians killed remains widely disputed.