BANI GALA, Pakistan Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan accused the United States on Friday of deliberately destroying any chance of meaningful peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban by killing the insurgency's leader in a drone strike a week ago.
The Taliban have since rejected talks with the government and threatened a wave of revenge attacks for the death of their chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, on November 1.
Khan, a popular opposition politician in the South Asian nation, told Reuters in an interview that the United States had scuppered negotiations at a time when the militants seemed to have become more open to them.
"If there was a chance of peace talks, we should have grabbed it," he said at his sprawling estate outside Islamabad ringed by hills and neatly maintained lawns.
"The Americans basically could have taken out Hakimullah whenever they wanted. I think the timing was to sabotage the peace process.
"The Americans think that if there is fighting going on here ...in our tribal belt, there is less chance of insurgents going over to the other side (Afghanistan) to fight the Americans at a time when they are withdrawing."
Washington has long put pressure on Pakistan to do more to tackle the insurgency but the new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, elected in May, wants to find a negotiated solution to years of violence.
Attacks against the army and civilians, however, have been on the rise since Sharif came to power, causing concern in a region already nervous about the planned withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan in 2014.
Earlier this week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested the drone attack was justifiable, while at the time saying Washington was sensitive to Pakistani concerns.
Mehsud had been tentatively open to ceasefire talks with the government, but new Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah, whose men were behind the attack on schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai last year, strongly opposes negotiations.
"SLAVES OF AMERICA"
Khan, who became a celebrity in Pakistan and the West in the 1980s as a dashing young cricketer, is now an influential politician and a fierce opponent of U.S. drone strikes.
He said missiles fired by unmanned U.S. aircraft in North Waziristan, a mountainous region where most militants are based, have only fuelled anti-American sentiment.
He agrees with Sharif on the need for peace talks with the Pakistan Taliban, an al Qaeda-linked group fighting to topple the government.
Khan, whose political party is now in charge of the volatile Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province bordering Afghanistan, has threatened to cut NATO supply lines through his region from November 20 if U.S. drone strikes do not end.
Blocking NATO trucks at KP border checkpoints could disrupt the operations of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan but any decision to close supply routes through Pakistan would have to come from the central government in Islamabad.
"They (the Taliban) think ... we are the slaves of America, that the Pakistan government is taking money from the U.S. and fighting its (America's) war and killing its own people," Khan said.
"Therefore they have declared jihad (holy war) against the Pakistan army and Pakistani security forces. The dialogue should (take place) to take that narrative away."
Despite Sharif's emphasis on talks, no meaningful negotiations have taken place since his election and Fazlullah's rise could signal the start of a new period of uncertainty and violence in the unstable region.
The Taliban want to oust the government and impose Islamist rule in the nuclear-armed nation. Opponents of talks, including many in Pakistan's all-powerful army, believe the insurgency can only be defeated by force.
But Khan disagrees: "We are bogged down in guerrilla warfare just as the British were bogged down for 80 years, in Waziristan, in the tribal areas, and they never succeeded," he said in reference to British military failures in the 19th century.
"We are not going to succeed because they (Taliban) are masters of guerrilla warfare."
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Barry Moody)