Exactly a month after the last drone attack by the United States in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas on September 29, another missile strike took place killing three people and causing injuries to another three in North Waziristan.
This wasn’t the usual drone strike being carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) since June 19, 2004 when the first such attack happened in South Waziristan in a village near the tribal agency’s administrative headquarters, Wana, killing Pakistani Taliban commander Nek Mohammad.
The drone strike on the night of October 30, 2013 was significant even if those eliminated were insignificant because it took place after the first official visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the US in which he repeatedly demanded an end to such attacks. In fact, the Prime Minister, who is also the foreign minister, made the drone strikes the pivot of his diplomatic campaign throughout his four-day visit and in almost all his engagements in Washington. He was even criticised for spending too much time on the drones at the cost of other important issues as it isn’t often that a Pakistani Prime Minister gets to meet the US President.
By carrying out the latest drone strike after a gap of a month, but soon after the Prime Minister’s visit to the US, the Obama administration sent a strong message that these attacks would continue. It also conveyed its disagreement with the Prime Minister and his five-month old government on the issue of drone strikes and whether these were counter-productive as Pakistan says or effective as claimed by the US. It showed that Nawaz Sharif’s demand for ending or temporarily halting drone strikes was unacceptable in the prevalent circumstances.
The Prime Minister’s claim that Obama had assured his support to Pakistan’s proposed peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban also appeared unconvincing because this would have been a major departure from the existing US policy of opposing peace agreements with the militants in Pakistan and would have meant ending altogether or halting for some time the drone strikes as demanded by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) so that the dialogue between the two sides could begin.
Continuation of attacks by the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the Predators, would destroy whatever little chances are there for starting the peace talks or making these a success. Rather, the drone strikes would ensure that the militants continue to distrust the government and its institutions, particularly the military, by blaming it as usual for cooperating with the US for undertaking these attacks.
As a consequence, acts of terrorism by the militants in Pakistan for avenging the losses suffered by them in drone hits would not end and the efforts to create the right conditions for meaningful peace dialogue would not succeed.
The number of drone strikes has decreased not due to the strong anti-drone campaign of the Nawaz Sharif government but on account of the paucity of high-value targets.
On the eve of his US visit, Nawaz Sharif received unexpected but timely support in his anti-drone campaign from the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch which condemned the drone attacks as violation of international law and also from Ben Emmerson whose UN report was scathing of Washington for causing and hiding civilian casualties. Malala Yousafzai, who enjoys admiration in the West, also put the issue in the limelight by asking President Obama during her visit to the White House to end the drone strikes in Pakistan as these were radicalising more people, particularly in tribal areas.
The provocative US drone strike on October 30 and earlier the ones carried out before and after the May 11 general election must have embarrassed Nawaz Sharif and caused him unease. It amounted to outright rejection of his government’s stated policy of opposition to the missile attacks by the pilot-less planes. As if this wasn’t enough, his main political rival, Imran Khan, was bent upon making life even more difficult for him by constantly harping on the drones issue and by making unreasonable demands on him. Imran Khan had in the recent past even proposed imposing tax on the Nato supplies to increase the revenue of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but the proposal was quietly dropped as it appeared impractical.
His handpicked Chief Minister, Pervez Khattak, contributed his own bit to the confusion by his confrontational but unimplementable demand that he would block Nato supplies if the US drone strikes in Fata were not stopped. Earlier, he had made the bizarre statement that his government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would start its own peace talks with the militants if the PML-N-headed federal government further delayed holding dialogue with the TTP. It was strange coming from him as he had until now been defending the PTI stand on issues by arguing that his party was heading a provincial government which isn’t authorised to make such a policy move in a federally-administered area on an issue which is federal in nature and involved the military.
Chief Minister Pervez Khattak had also announced plans to hold another All Parties Conference on the issue of militancy and peace talks, apparently to match the PML-N’s show held on September 9 and emphasise the relevance of the PTI and its provincial government to the situation. The conference hasn’t been held until now and it is unlikely to break any new ground if it were to take place.
It was obvious that drone politics was causing a hardening of positions of the two major political parties — PML-N and PTI — and creating confusion instead of resolving the issue. The US is well aware of the strife in the ranks of the politicians in Pakistan on a number of issues, including the drone attacks, and is capable of exploiting the situation to its advantage.
It is clear that the US would not end its drone programme in Pakistan until Islamabad came with a tough counter terrorism policy that includes initiatives to deny space to local and foreign militants using places like the two Waziristans to plot attacks against other countries, notably the US and its allies in the West and also in Afghanistan.
It would be right to say at this stage that the number of drone strikes has decreased not due to the strong anti-drone campaign of the Nawaz Sharif government but on account of the paucity of high-value targets and possibly due to the growing criticism in the US and by the international human rights organisations against these attacks for causing extra-judicial killings. If the PML-N government shows consistency on the issue, it would have an impact in future and the US would listen but this has to be accompanied by a government commitment to more resolutely tackle militancy using all available options.