Imran Khan is, according to numerous polls, the most popular politician in Pakistan and may very well be that country’s next prime minister. He is also a vehement critic of US drone attacks on his country, vowing to order them shot down if he is prime minister and leading an anti-drone protest march last month.
On Saturday, Khan boarded a flight from Canada to New York in order to appear at a fundraising lunch and other events. But before the flight could take off, US immigration officials removed him from the plane and detained him for two hours, causing him to miss the flight. On Twitter, Khan reported that he was “interrogated on [his] views on drones” and then added: “My stance is known. Drone attacks must stop.” He then defiantly noted: “Missed flight and sad to miss the fundraising lunch in NY but nothing will change my stance.”
The State Department acknowledged Khan’s detention and said: “The issue was resolved. Khan is welcome in the United States.” Customs and immigration officials refused to comment except to note that “our dual mission is to facilitate travel in the US while we secure our borders, our people, and our visitors from those that would do us harm like terrorists and terrorist weapons, criminals, and contraband,” and added that the burden is on the visitor “to demonstrate that they are admissible” and “the applicant must overcome all grounds of inadmissibility.”
There are several obvious points raised by this episode. Strictly on pragmatic grounds, it seems quite ill-advised to subject the most popular leader in Pakistan — the potential next prime minister — to trivial, vindictive humiliations of this sort. It is also a breach of the most basic diplomatic protocol: just imagine the outrage if a US politician were removed from a plane by Pakistani officials in order to be questioned about their publicly expressed political views. And harassing prominent critics of US policy is hardly likely to dilute anti-US animosity; the exact opposite is far more likely to occur.
But the most important point here is that Khan’s detention is part of a clear trend by the Obama administration to harass and intimidate critics of its drone attacks.
Last May, I wrote about the amazing case of Muhammad Danish Qasim, a Pakistani student who produced a short film entitled The Other Side, which “revolves around the idea of assessing social, psychological and economical effects of drones on the people in tribal areas of Pakistan.” Qasim, chosen as the winner of the Audience Award for Best International Film at the 2012 National Film Festival For Talented Youth, was barred from making any appearances in the US.
The month prior, Shahzad Akbar — a Pakistani lawyer who represents drone victims in lawsuits against the US and the co-founder of the Pakistani human rights organisation, Foundation for Fundamental Rights, was denied a visa. The US is eager to impose a price for effectively challenging its policies and to prevent the public — the domestic public, that is — from hearing critics with first-hand knowledge of the impact of those policies.