Sunday, Sep 26, 2021

The Silent War

There is a clear perception that Drone attacks are helping the militants win sympathy. But despite public protestations Islamabad continues to secretly cooperate with the US, even if its focus in on TTP and not Taliban-Al Qaeda

The Silent War
The Silent War

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP, earlier known as North West Frontier Province), the militant hub in terror-engulfed Pakistan, are now the location of an ever-increasing cycle of Drone attacks by the United States (US). In the latest wave of such attack, at least 13 Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants, including ‘commander’ Amir Moaviya, were killed, and six others were injured, when a US Drone struck a Hujra (guesthouse) of a tribesman's compound at Eisori village near Mirali, a town in North Waziristan Agency (NWA), on August 14, 2010. Earlier, on July 25, at least 24 persons, a majority of them believed to be local tribal militants, were killed in South Waziristan and North Waziristan Agencies. The US conducted its first Drone attack in Pakistan on June 18, 2004, at Wana, the regional headquarters of the South Waziristan Agency (SWA), killing five tribal militants.

Reports indicate that missile attacks by US Drones in the FATA have more than tripled since January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama took over the Presidency in USA. According to a BBC Urdu Service report published on July 24, 2010, there were 25 Drone strikes between January 2008 and January 2009 in which slightly fewer than 200 people were killed. Between January 20, 2009, and the end of June 2010, there were at least 87 such attacks, killing more than 700 people. 

The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database records that both the number of Drone attacks and casualties have been rising every year, with the exception of 2006, in which there was no such incident recorded. While only one person was killed in a single incident in 2005, the number of fatalities increased to 20 in 2007, in a single attack. In 2008, 156 persons were killed in 19 such incidents. Year 2009 became bloodier, with 46 such incidents killing 536 persons. The first seven months of 2010 have already seen 41 such incidents and 366 fatalities.

Drone attack in Pakistan: 2005-2010


*Data till August 15, 2010.Source: SATP 

The most significant Drone attacks in Pakistan includes the following:

  • January 17, 2010: A US Drone strike killed at least 20 Taliban militants, including foreign terrorists (Uzbeks), in the SWA.
  • October 24, 2009: A suspected US Drone killed 33 militants in the Bajaur Agency of FATA. The Drone targeted a TTP shura (executive council) meeting in Damadola area.
  • August 21, 2009: A pre-dawn Drone attack killed at least 21 militants in the NWA. 
  • July 8, 2009: 48 militants were killed and several others injured in two separate attacks by US Drones in the SWA.
  • June 23, 2009: Approximately 80 militants, including Khwaz Wali Mehsud, a senior ‘commander’ of the TTP, were killed and several others sustained injuries in two separate attacks by US spy planes on a suspected militant hideout and funeral prayers at Lattaka village of Ladha subdivision in SWA.
  • February 16, 2009: 30 suspected militants were killed and three others sustained injuries in a missile strike on a refugee camp in the Kurram Agency of FATA.
  • February 14, 2009: Two missiles fired by US Drones killed 28 TTP militants, including foreign nationals, in SWA.
  • October 3, 2008: US Drone strikes on Mohammad Khel village in NWA killed at least 20 suspected militants.
  • June 19, 2007: At least 22 suspected militants were killed and 10 sustained injuries, when a missile fired by US Drone hit a cluster of compounds in the Dattakhel area of NWA.

There is an evident intensification of US Drone operations across the tribal regions of Pakistan, as the realization dawns that, despite its intense ground and air operations in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has failed to secure its objectives of weakening the Taliban and al Qaeda in that country, as Pakistan’s tribal areas become the source and sanctuary for Islamist terrorists operating on Afghan soil. The TTP – which has also been lethally active within Pakistan – has provided critical support to al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and operatives. The prime objective of campaign of Drone attacks is to flush out the top tier of al-Qaeda's leadership, including Osama bin Laden, and deny sanctuary in FATA for the Taliban/TTP and those militants who regularly slip across the border to attack US forces in Afghanistan. Since the rugged terrain of the region does not allow easy access to ground Forces, the Drones have become the ultimate tool of operation.

Significantly, the US has succeeded in eliminating some leadership elements in the target terrorist groups through Drone attacks. According to a report in The Long War Journal, Drone strikes have killed 15 senior and an equal number of mid-level al Qaeda leaders, and four senior and five mid-level Taliban/TTP leaders since 2004. Some of the most significant kills include Baitullah Mehsud (former TTP ‘commander’), Osama al Kini alias Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam (al Qaeda's operations chief for Pakistan), Mustafa Abu Yazid alias Sheikh Saeed al Masri (an al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan and top financial controller), Mohammed Haqqani (a mid-level Haqqani Network ‘military commander’ and brother of the outfit’s leader Sirajuddin Haqqani), Abdul Basit Usman (the US had a USD one million bounty on his head), and Abu Jihad al Masri (the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group and the chief of al Qaeda's intelligence branch). Bewildered by these losses, the TTP, on April 5, 2010, threatened more terrorist and suicide strikes unless the US shelved Drone attacks in the FATA. 

The efficacy of the Drone attacks has, however, been widely contested. While the US insists that these have been targeted with extraordinary precision, with ‘negligible’ collateral damage, a report published in The News on April 8, 2010, claimed that, of 60 cross-border predator strikes carried out by the Afghanistan-based American Forces on Pakistani soil, between January 14, 2006, and April 8, 2009, only 10 were able to hit their intended targets, killing 14 wanted al-Qaeda leaders, besides killing 687 innocent Pakistani civilians, yielding a ‘success rate’ of not more than six per cent. A July 14, 2009, Brookings Institute report titled "Do Targeted Killings Work?" stated that more than 600 civilians are likely to have died in the Drone attacks, as compared to approximately 60 militants killed. 

Unsurprisingly, there is a great hue and cry inside Pakistan about these attacks and the Drones have become a highly emotive political issue in the country. Consequently, the government and Army protest loudly after each strike. On March 25, 2010, for instance, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said US Drone attacks in the tribal areas were being carried out ‘without Pakistan's consent’ and the matter would be taken up with Washington during bilateral discussions. He, however, added that the US was committed to provide Drone technology to Pakistan. 

Despite their public protestations, however, Islamabad, under tremendous US pressure, is secretly cooperating with the US by providing much of the human intelligence that allows the Drones to target safe houses in the tribal area where al-Qaida and Taliban/TTP militants are suspected to be hiding out. Reports indicate that Islamabad has allowed the hosting of Central Intelligence Agency agents, who call in the strikes, in Pakistani Army compounds in the tribal area. A Time report of June 1, 2009, " The CIA's Silent War in Pakistan", thus noted:

...Pakistani leaders like Army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Kayani seem to have concluded that using Drones to kill terrorists in FATA is generally a good thing. This is a major change in direction; although former President Pervez Musharraf allowed Drones to operate, he placed severe limits on where and when they could strike. After Musharraf resigned... the shackles came off. The US struck a tacit bargain with the new administration in Islamabad: Zardari and Kayani would quietly enable more Drone operations while publicly criticizing the US after each strike... 

Meanwhile, vocal Pakistani opinion in general remains unconvinced that the campaign serves Pakistan's interests, arguing, moreover, that the Drone strikes and the disproportionate ‘collateral damage’ that inflict are helping the militants win more sympathy. As Brigadier (Retired) Mahmood Shah noted in 2009, "Baitullah Mehsud likes to boast that each Drone attack brings him three or four suicide bombers." 

Lacking credible options, however, the Obama government remains determined to intensify the Drone attacks to target the terror centres in FATA and KP. Consequently, the US defence budget for 2011 seeks an augmentation of funds to enhance Drone operations by 75 per cent, citing its success in targeting militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal belt. Pushing for the enhanced allocation, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen declared, in February 2010, "With this funding, we will increase the unmanned Predator and Reaper orbits from 37 to 65, while enhancing our ability to process, exploit and disseminate information gathered by this game-changing technology." Further, the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, while briefing journalists on the 2011 budget, stated that new Drones would be added to the American military’s arsenal "in a couple of years" and these would be "the most advanced UAVs". 

The success of the Drone campaign will depend overwhelmingly on the precision of intelligence on which each strike is based. Unfortunately, there are wide black holes in this dimension. Worse, in a tribal culture that regards personal courage as an essential quality in both enemies and allies, the Drone strikes fuel contempt and alienation among the population, who accuse the Americans of ‘cowardice’ and an unwillingness to face their adversaries in battle. This plays quite well into the broader Pakistani establishment gameplan, as an ambivalent project to support particular brands of terrorism run parallel to a limited effort to direct domestic and foreign Forces against others. Specifically, Pakistan has focused on operations against the TTP, and sought to draw US Drone fire against this group’s leadership, even as it continues to provide safe haven to, and cover up the tracks of, the leadership of the Taliban- al Qaeda combine. 

Technology alone will not resolve this problem. Unless Pakistani perfidy is neutralized, reliable intelligence is enormously augmented, and civilian casualties are minimized, the US will continue to harvest a bitter fruit even from the ‘successes’ of its unmanned campaigns in FATA and KP. 

Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal .


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