A group of Americans joined thousands of Pakistanis to complete a two-day and 230-mile peace march across the country yesterday to protest America’s use of drones in Pakistan's tribal areas.
A party of 30 men and women between the ages of 22 and 80 years old were organized by the American antiwar coalition Code Pink. They joined Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, and thousands of protesters from his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI).
The two-day march was set to travel from Islamabad to South Waziristan, a region known for American drone attacks, Pakistani Army operations, and Islamist militants. However, the march stopped short of entering the tribal area when the Army turned Mr. Khan and his supporters away. Code Pink turned back even earlier – at Dera Ismail Khan, the last stop before South Waziristan – citing security threats to the delegation.
Though Code Pink was a marginal participant at a largely Pakistani-organized and Pakistani-led protest, its presence was nevertheless used by Khan to highlight Americans who oppose drone strikes and the US government's foreign policy.
“They were older and traveled far to join us. They stood in solidarity with our fight against American drones,” said Khan to thousands of protesters cheering him on at a clearing in Tank, close to the border of South Waziristan.
Some criticized Khan's PTI for the march, accusing him of organizing it to garner votes in the upcoming parliamentary election and failing to sufficiently criticize Army operations or Taliban atrocities.
The Code Pink delegation seemed largely unaware of local political dynamics that they were walking into. Joe Lombardo, co-chair of the United National Anti-War Committee (UNAC) and a participant at the rally, says members of the delegation did observe the sensitive political dynamics, but adds that their role was limited to strongly registering their opposition to American-led drone attacks.
“We need to make sure that the atrocities carried out by our government [are] stopped,” says Mr. Lombardo.
A ‘drone-free world’
Dressed in pink and holding banners saying “Stop Killer Drones,” Code Pink's delegation made V-signs and sang “We're marching to Waziristan” and “We're hoping for a drone-free world” at a rally organized in Islamabad, before taking off on a 14-hour bus ride from the capital the following day.
With their coordinated colors, the delegation of Americans said they were ready to risk their lives for killings caused by their government, thousands of miles away from their homes in the United States.
“I’m 71 years old [and] I’m ready to die for this cause," said Linda Welling, a member of Code Pink from Portland, Ore., leaning back in her seat in a bus plastered with pictures of children killed in American drone attacks.
“How is our government any better than the militants we battle?” asks Joan Nicholson, a 78-year-old member of Code Pink who was once arrested in Washington for shouting “We are a terrorist nation!”
The group stood out in the sea of red-and-green clad members of the PTI who moved in a pack of thousands along the 300-mile road from Islamabad to Dera Ismail Khan.
Many of the PTI members were young men, dancing the traditional attan from the rooftops of decorated trucks that joined the procession.
Pakistan’s liberal elite criticized the march as a publicity stunt put on by a political party prepared to compete for seats in the next parliamentary election in Pakistan. The local Express Tribune called the march “troubled.” Others criticized Khan for having a soft spot for the Taliban by opposing the drones. And some observers pointed out that Khan stayed clear of criticizing the Pakistan Army and the Taliban, both of whom have carried out numerous operations in the tribal agencies.
South Waziristan – the destination point that the march never reached – is known to be largely Army-controlled. But Khan stayed clear of criticizing the Pakistan Army or the Taliban, despite claims that the march was a call for peace. One local from South Waziristan who lives in neighboring Dera Ismail Khan as an internally displaced person says he was “not surprised” that the Army blocked their entrance. Another PTI activist says the Army was trying to cover up its own atrocities by stopping the rally from entering the area.
Though Code Pink could not join Khan at the final meeting, its spokesperson and coordinator Madea Benjamin felt that the members had “achieved their purpose.” And the rally was attended by other Westerners, like Lauren Booth, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, and Clive Stafford Smith, an American-British lawyer and founder of Reprieve – an international legal aid agency supporting drone victims.
In the final hour of the two-day rally, Mr. Smith addressed thousands of Pakistanis. “I would like to apologize for what my government is doing to you,” he said to the cheering crowd.