Imran Khan has promised to order the Pakistan Air Force to shoot down American drones if he takes power in a general election due in the first half of next year.
The former cricket captain is to lead peace activists into the country’s lawless tribal belt on Saturday to publicise the human toll of the CIA’s covert programme of missile strikes.
He has emerged as a serious contender for power after a decade and a half in the political wilderness since retiring from cricket and is now one of the country’s most outspoken critics of America’s use of unmanned aircraft.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said the attacks were pushing young men in the arms of Taliban recruiters.
“It is totally counterproductive,” he said. “The [idea] that it is only killing al-Qaeda is a myth,” he said. “The people will tell you that the vast majority of people killed are either innocent civilians or some sort of low-level militants.”
And he accused the government of Pakistan of condemning the attacks in public, while privately giving American commanders the go-ahead to launch strikes in the country’s tribal belt.
“This government is completely complicit in it,” he said.
Instead, his government would urge the US to end the strikes, he said. Failing that he would order the Pakistan Air Force to intervene “because it violates our sovereignty”.
He made a similar claim earlier this week during an appearance on a local television talk show.
“At first I will strive to convince the US to stop these attacks but if they refuse to do so I will ask our air force to shoot down drone intruders,” he said.
This weekend he is planning to lead peace activists on 300-mile, two-day rally to South Waziristan, scene of dozens of drone strikes, to draw world attention to the plight of civilian populations living in fear of the drones buzzing overhead.
Activists travelling with him have secured a guarantee from US embassy officials that they will not be targeted.
The controversial CIA programme began in 2004 and has accelerated under Barack Obama.
Critics have called for him to halt “signature strikes” against individuals that have not been identified and accuse his administration of drastically underestimating the number of civilians killed.
Data collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggest that between 474 and 881 civilians have died in strikes.