Of Lull in Drone Strikes
January 13, 2012
As the US-Pakistan relationship continues to unravel, the US has placed its covert drone campaign in Pakistan's tribal areas on hold. US officials fear that an attack at this point in time would further damage the already fragile relationship between the US and Pakistan, pushing it to point of no return. Since the incident of November 26 last year, when NATO forces raided two Pakistani checkposts in Mohmand Agency, resulting in killing of 24 soldiers and injuries of 16 others, not a single drone attack has been reported in Pakistani tribal areas.
Reportedly, last drone attack was carried out on November 17 last year near Razmak town of North Waziristan, which killed six suspected militants. No attack has been launched over the past 45 days, and this is for the first time since 2004 that the tribal areas have witnessed a break in drone attack for about six weeks. Reportedly, a total of 303 drone attacks have been carried out since 2004 in which 2,661 people were killed.
The suspension of drone strikes by the US can be attributed to a combination of factors. Mounting protests and public backlash against drone attacks as well as the consistent diplomatic pressure exerted by Pakistan on the US, especially in the wake of a diplomatic row over the alleged killing of two Pakistani citizens by a CIA contractor Raymond Davis in Lahore on January 27 last year. After Raymond Davis’ arrest, only three predator drone strikes were witnessed in February compared to 10 such attacks in January the same year.
Moreover, an ensuing drone strike on March 13, only a day after Raymond Davis’ controversial release and departure to the US, in North Waziristan which targeted a gathering of tribal elders leaving 44 innocent civilians dead and five others injured, also led to furious reaction from Pakistan’s military and political leadership. It was the deadliest attack since 2006. The subsequent diplomatic stand-off between the US and Pakistan, once again, resulted in dip in drone operations which declined from 10 in March to 3 in April.
Similarly, downturn in Pak-US relations after May 2 assassination of Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden in a US Navy Seals’ operation in Abbotabad, resulted in considerable decline in drone operations. After the May 2 incident, Pakistan insisted on departure of CIA operatives from Pakistani soil which made successful drone operations difficult, if not impossible. Pakistan responded to the November 26 air strike last year in Mohmand by shutting down the Shamsi Airbase to the US military and the CIA, in addition to closing the Chaman and Torkham border crossings. The base was used to support US Predators and Reapers flying sorties in Pakistan. Also, the Pakistani military claims it has beefed up its anti-aircraft capabilities along its western border and maintains it would deny its airspace to the US drones. Additionally, the breakdown of intelligence cooperation and information sharing between the US and Pakistan also added to lesser drone strikes in 2011 compared to the previous year.
The data compiled by New America Foundation reveals that in 2011 as many as 75 US-led predator drone strikes were reported compared to 135 strikes witnessed in 2010, showing a decrease of 47.74 percent. Around 517 people, including 430 suspected militants and 87 civilians, lost their lives in these strikes and 133 others, among them 116 suspected militants and 17 civilians, were wounded. Of the 75 drone strikes, 47 were witnessed in North Waziristan, 22 in South Waziristan and 2 in Kurram Agency.
Data reveals that drones operations in Pakistani tribal areas managed to kill four operatives and leaders of Al-Qaeda, five of Haqqani Network, 29 of Local Taliban (read Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Mullah Nazir Groups). Key Al-Qaeda and Taliban members killed in drone attacks in 2011 included Atiyah Abd-al-Rahman, second in command of Al-Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death; Abdul Ziad A Irqai, manager of Al-Qaeda’s finances in Pakistan; Ilyas Kashmiri of 313 Brigade and chief of Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islamic (HUJI), the operational arm of Al-Qaeda in Punjab; Hafeez Salahuddin, an internet jihadist and Omar Hazrat, brother of Taliban commander Mullah Nazeer.
Despite an overall decrease in drone strikes an unprecedented increase was witnessed in such attacks in South Waziristan during the year. In the past, drone attacks in South Waziristan were rare as 90 percent of the attacks in 2010 occurred in North Waziristan. During 2011, South Waziristan was more frequently targeted. Drone attacks in South Waziristan increased by 60 percent. During 2010, which was the deadliest year in the history of drone attacks in Pakistan, only 9 out of 132 strikes were carried out in South Waziristan. But in 2011 the number of attacks increased to 23. In North Waziristan, the CIA carried out 50 strikes while two strikes were carried out in Kurram Agency.
While Americans fear that the pause in the drone program, and Pakistan's warning of shooting down the US aircraft in case of violation of Pakistan’s airspace, threaten its strategy against Al- Qaeda, the gains made by Pakistani security forces against Al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups leave no space for uncalled for foreign intervention. Such foreign interventions not only fuel anti-US feelings, but also pave way for raising sympathies for militants in local tribesmen and make it difficult for Pakistan to justify its cooperation with the US in war on terror. As the US is entering into negotiations with Afghan Taliban to bring an end to decade long war in Afghanistan, continuation of drone strikes in Pakistan will create problems for Pakistani authorities to take their counter-terror efforts to their logical conclusion. The US and international coalition forces will have to understand Pakistani sensitivities for bringing the decade long war in Afghanistan to peaceful end.