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Pakistani ex-cricket star challenges U.S. on drone strikes

| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 11:24 p.m.

ISLAMABAD — For years, American officials have tried to persuade Pakistan's military chiefs and prime ministers to cooperate with U.S.-led war plans in neighboring Afghanistan.

But now it is a politician in a far-flung province who is standing in the way.

Angered by U.S. drone strikes, Imran Khan has effectively halted NATO convoys through northwest Pakistan, a vital crossing point for trucks carrying supplies to and from landlocked Afghanistan.

Khan, an Oxford University-educated millionaire and former cricket star, has no real power in the national government. But his party controls the local government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, through which NATO convoys must pass to reach the northern border crossing.

After drone strikes in Pakistan this fall, the 61-year-old politician called on his supporters to block the transit routes in protest. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government has appeared powerless to stop him.

With Sharif and Pakistan's military vowing that the supply routes must remain open, Khan's campaign is a remarkable show of defiance in a country that has been under military rule for more than half of its 67-year history.

A self-described liberal pacifist who became more attuned to his Muslim faith after his globe-trotting cricket career ended, Khan shows no sign of backing down.

He says that although drone strikes may be aimed at violent militants, many wind up killing innocent civilians and fuel terrorism by angering the local population.

“The reason we are taking this stand is to tell the U.S., ‘OK, it's fine to protect American lives, but how can you sacrifice a whole country for it?' ” Khan said in a recent interview at his mountaintop estate on the outskirts of Islamabad.

The attacks violate Pakistan's sovereignty, Khan says, and he notes that the Pakistani army is bearing the brunt of the retaliatory strikes from Islamist militants.

But Khan is drawing fierce criticism from some Pakistanis who accuse him of using the issue for political gain. Khan, a member of Parliament, unsuccessfully sought the prime minister's job in elections last year.

Riffat Hussain, a defense and political analyst in Islamabad, said Khan has become a “one-man show” who “has yet to mature into a statesman.”

“Many of us had hoped, now that elections are over, he would have focused on local issues, corruption, law and order, terrorism, but instead he is trying to play to the peanut gallery,” Hussain said.

Khan ended his two-decade-long cricket career in 1992, after leading Pakistan's national team to its only World Cup victory. He then became a philanthropist and founded his party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice.

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