Monday, 13 December 2010

The United States May Expand Drone Strikes in Pakistan

Written by  Muhammad Zamir Assadi

It is the time to point out the most sensitive issue in Pakistan, which could be fatal for national security and especially for Baluchistan (a province in Pakistan): the expansion in the use of drone attacks on Quetta (capital of Baluchistan). This issue has created heated feelings against the United States in Pashtoon (the Pashtoo-speaking) areas of Baluchistan.

According to reports, the United States wishes to expand drone attacks in the area of Quetta because Washington could not get its desired results using drone attacks in Waziristan. The United States thinks that prominent Taliban leaders are hiding in Quetta and that the leaders are controlling the different Taliban factions in Afghanistan who have been creating hurdles for allied forces — causing the failure of U.S. plans in Afghanistan and destabilizing the Karzai-led government.

U.S. spy agencies and spy masters of NATO believe that Quetta is the hub of all the extremists who have been creating troubles in Zabul, Ghazni, Qandahar, and Helmand (provinces of Afghanistan). They believe that Mulla Umer (supreme commander of Taliban) has a safehouse in this city; however, Pakistan always rejects these allegations. There is good reason to believe that the United States is correct, and Taliban leaders are in Quetta.

Quetta, a city of 2.7 million people, holds many refugees from Afghanistan who came here when the United States attacked Afghanistan. Uzbeks, Tajiks, Afghans, and other groups of people have settled here, and provincial governments have registered them officially. Most of them have succeeded in getting IDs (identity cards) of NADRA (National Data Base Registration Authority), but NADRA also cancelled hundreds of fake ID cards. It is notable that the government has said these refugees may stay in the country until December 31, 2012.

Also, according to independent media reports, the USA and NATO have laid a spy network in Quetta for targeting Taliban and have hired local Pashtoons. People believe that the Pakistani government has permitted the USA to launch spy operations in collaboration with Pakistani spy agencies to target the Taliban secretly. It is clear that U.S. and Pakistani spy agencies work together to conduct search operations for capturing Taliban. The arrest of Mullah Baradar (prominent Taliban commander) was the result of a joint operation. The media has reported the presence of suspected European and Americans wandering in Quetta, but the government of Pakistan will not respond on this issue.

One Pakistani government official has admitted to the presence of Taliban in the area of Quetta. Talking to the media, the Chief Minister of Baluchistan, Nawab Aslam Raisani, said there are Taliban in Baluchistan, but they are peaceful and enrolled in religious seminaries only to get an education. He added that since these Taliban are not terrorists, there is no reason for anyone to carry out drone attacks in Baluchistan.

But he also denied the presence of American troops in this region, saying, "We are slaves of Allah not America."

According to the Express Tribune (Pakistan), the United States is pressuring the government of Pakistan to get permission for drone attacks in these areas. Pakistan has reputedly rejected the U.S. plea, saying that drone attacks create more problems internally for them than the government can afford. "'You expect us to open the skies for anything that you can fly,' said a [unnamed] high-ranking Pakistani intelligence official, who described the Quetta request as an affront to Pakistani sovereignty. 'In which country can you do that?'" Meanwhile, Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said that Pakistan's military is capable of tackling any type of militancy, and Pakistani leaders have indicated that they will take action against the Taliban themselves rather than allowing drone strikes.

Of course, any official public application for permission by the U.S. government to bomb in Baluchistan, and the rejection of that permission by the Pakistani government is merely a game of words because everyone in the nation knows that when the United States decides to take action, a lack of public permission will not stand in their way. People have seen demonstrations of this fact in Waziristan, Orakzai, and Bajur (tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Pakistani forces fought an aggressive limited war against the Taliban and gained successes) and areas of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The U.S. government may wait for secret permission, however. Wikileaks have proven that Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gillani permitted the USA to continue the Drone attacks. AAJ News reported:

On the record, Pakistan has persistently criticized the United States' use of unmanned drones to attack militant hideouts in its mountainous border region.

But diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks reveal that in private the Pakistani government was not unhappy about the strikes.

In a cable sent in August 2008, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan at the time, Anne Patterson, recounted a meeting with Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. It coincided with a military operation in one of the restive frontier territories.

Patterson wrote, "Malik suggested we hold off alleged Predator attacks until after the Bajaur operation. The PM brushed aside Rehman's remarks and said, 'I don't care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We'll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.'"

In Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, he recounts a similar statement by Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari: "'Kill the seniors," Zardari said. 'Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.'"

But perhaps the attacks should concern Zardari. According to different surveys, for each one extremist hit by drone attacks in Waziristan, 10 other innocent people are targeted. Pakistani newspapers report that the first U.S. drone attack hit the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) on June 18, 2004. Tribesmen of this area, predominantly a medieval lawless landscape, identify these attacks by the humming of the drones, which sound like red bees. From the years 2004 through 2010, most researchers would agree to an estimate of more than 200 drone strikes in Pakistan. It is almost certain that the casualties have reached thousands. But crunching numbers is not easy. There are no official records of the number of deaths caused by the U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan's northwestern frontier.

According to data gathered primarily from local and international news sources, the number of attacks from 2008 to 2009 increased by approximately 50 percent, and from 2009 to 2010, they have more than doubled in number. Roughly speaking, this year, appallingly, more than 100 strikes have been recorded unofficially.

According to Time magazine, "The White House routinely dodges questions on the subject, and neither the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) nor the State Department would talk about the program on the record." There are officially no figures that have been reported regarding the exact number of strikes, or the casualties of the "silent war of the CIA" by either the U.S. government or the Army.

U.S. and other countries' humanitarian NGO's are aware of these brutal killings in tribal areas, but no one is raising a voice about the violations of human rights on such a vast scale.

The desire for revenge grows in residents of these areas, and they look toward joining the Taliban to get even, and they increasingly hate Islamic democratic Pakistan. These drone attacks in tribal areas eased the hiring process of the Taliban. Pakistani interests have been damaged on a large scale in tribal areas by drone attacks, and now Quetta is the next target. Quetta is a heavily populated city, and any drone attack will result in the loss of many innocent lives. It is clear that if the USA launches drone attacks in Quetta, it would be fatal for the national security and integrity of Pakistan.

Muhammad Zamir Assadi is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Photo: AP Images