Armed United States drones were over Pakistan, killing targets on the ground, almost as soon as the new year began. In the first two weeks of 2011 five drones strikes were recorded against terrorist targets in Pakistan.
Though Islamabad has upped its public protests against these attacks, the skies above Pakistan will be dark with drones this year. Even going by the last four months of 2010 the trajectory is clear. The 21 strikes in September were a record high. The next three months saw 16, 14 and 12 strikes respectively. In comparison: the previous high had been 11 attacks in January 2010.
Security analyst Bill Roggio, who tracks drone attacks, says the pace of strikes is “unprecedented.”
In Pakistan there is growing pressure from right-wing parties to end drone attacks. “This is a violation of our sovereignty and we must put an end to these endless violations,” says Qazi Hussain Ahmad, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. Even moderate leaders like Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan claim the aerial strikes result in retaliatory strikes by extremists.
The spurt of attacks that have marked the start of 2011 have been an embarrassment for Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani who had said in December that the drone attacks would decreaseThe new US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Frank Ruggiero, was told earlier this month that the attacks have to stop. Prime Minister Gilani said that these attacks were counter-productive.
As in the past, Islamabad simply sits on the fence over the matter. It doesn’t help Pakistan that many of the drone attacks originate from the Shahbaz Base in Sindh.
Privately Pakistani foreign office officials say the attacks will continue. One said that this was the best option under the circumstances. “The other option is to have US troops on the ground and that is something that we want to avoid at all costs.”
There are other reasons too why the drones will be aloft all through the year.
One is that the attacks are remarkably accurate. “The attacks are not random. They have killed many high profile targets at a time when the Pakistan armed forces have remained ineffective,” says Khadim Hussain, an academic who has closely watching the drones and the reaction to them. This has muted public anger. Most of the attacks target remote North Waziristan, stronghold of Taliban groups like the Haqqani Network.
Two, experts believe Pakistan’s reluctance to mount a military campaign in North Waziristan have made the drone campaign essential.
Roggio said, “I expect this trend in strikes to continue through 2011, as Pakistan does not seem willing to do what it takes to police its own territories. The US would much rather have Pakistan take on the Taliban and al Qaeda. But given their unwillingness to do so, the US is left with no other option than to disrupt the terror networks operating in North Waziristan.”
He added, “If the US or Europe were struck by terrorists and the plot traced back to North Waziristan, and the US had not made an effort to prevent it, there would be a serious backlash from the US electorate.”
There were 117 drone strikes within Pakistan in 2010, all of them with the tacit approval of Islamabad. That was a two-and-half times greater than the total number of attacks in the previous year, itself a record mark. This year is likely to see the record broken again.
The number of attacks and the rising casualties are causing concern once again. In 2010, there were 124 attacks which killed 1,184 people as compared to 53 attacks in 2009 that killed 760.
In 2004, when the attacks started, the government of President Pervez Musharraf had feigned ignorance, saying this was done without the government being taken into confidence. Through the Musharraf period, Islamabad protested in public but did little or nothing, in private.
Things came to a head in 2008 when an elected government took the reins of office. Since then, the question of Pakistan’s sovereignty has come up time and again.
The parliament has passed a resolution that the attacks be stopped.
Instead, there have been reports that the drone attacks will be extended to Balochistan
“I will not allow this to happen as long as I am in office,” says Balochistan chief minister Nawab Aslam Raisani. But Raisani governs a largely lawless province where a full scale insurgency is already being fought. Taking advantage of the chaos, many militant and terror groups have set up shop in the province. “The situation in Balochistan is a source of much concern,” says veteran politician Mairaj Muhammad Khan.
The most credible complaint against the drone attacks is that they aren’t going far out enough. However, the US campaign has the situation in Afghanistan looming in its sights and that means tribal areas like Waziristan.
In the meantime, Pakistan’s Punjab province has become a nest of jihadi groups who target India and other countries. These incude groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Muhammad, groups whose potential for terrorism are the equal if not the superior of the Taliban. .
Especially, if as reported, the leadership of the Taliban, already believed to be in Quetta in Balochistan, moves deeper into Pakistan.