While the world’s eyes are transfixed on the unsettling developments taking place in the Middle East, the United States’ anti-terrorism campaign hit another difficult obstacle on the Pakistani front.
Pakistani officials have recently “privately demanded” that the US military end its highly effective and deadly drone campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists based in Pakistan’s rugged border areas, where the government’s writ barely extends. Besides blunting the best weapon for confronting the al Qaeda threat and crippling America’s anti-terrorist strategy, the Pakistani demand, if acted on by the U.S., would grant al Qaeda more operating room to carry out attacks worldwide. Extremely troubling is that the Pakistani government’s desire to shelve the drone shows how alarmingly weak it has become vis-à-vis the extremist threat.
There are several possible reasons for the Pakistani government wanting the drone to disappear from Pakistani air space. Tensions have been increasing between the United States and Pakistan regarding the drone campaign. Pakistani officials are worried about the government’s standing with the people in regards to the civilian casualties the unmanned aerial weapon have caused. Pakistanis, imbued with anti-Americanism, also vehemently resent the drones, regarding their presence in Pakistani skies as an infringement of their country’s sovereignty.
Connected to the two countries’ deteriorating counter-terrorism relationship, the Pakistani government is also concerned that American intelligence agents in Pakistan are “working without Islamabad’s full knowledge.” The case of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who killed “two armed Pakistani men” and was jailed, causing a diplomatic incident, has worsened this situation. Davis was freed last month after agreeing to pay compensation, or blood money, to the families of the deceased.
But probably the main reason behind the Pakistani leadership’s demand to cancel the drone, according to the military news publication Strategy Page, is fear for its own personal safety (translation: a surrender to Islamists). Strategy Page reports the Pakistani government has succumbed to the Taliban’s threat that it would kill senior civilian and military leaders if the drone campaign was not stopped. In the past, the Taliban has assassinated politicians as important as Benazir Bhutto, wife of Pakistan’s current president, while she herself was campaigning for the presidential office.
This death threat, combined with the overall Islamist power within the country, is most likely the main reason why the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, has reduced its co-operation with the CIA the past four months – which has led to a withdrawal of dozens of intelligence operatives from Pakistan and a reduction in the number of drone attacks on terrorist leaders.
“The ISI believes this pro-Taliban policy will protect their leaders from terror attacks,” Strategy Page stated.
The Taliban and al Qaeda view their assassination strategy as the only countermeasure capable of stopping the CIA’s highly successful “decapitation” campaign, in which drones have been targeting high-level terrorist operatives hiding in Pakistan. Since 2008, when the drone campaign started, an estimated 700 al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists have been killed by the drone’s Hellfire missile. Particularly painful for al Qaeda and its allies is the fact that about two dozen top leaders and 100 mid-level ones are among the dead. The loss of the mid-level cadres apparently hurt the two terrorist organisations the most, since these are highly experienced field commanders who translate their leaders’ military strategy into reality.
“The mounting casualties show that the net is tightening on the militants and their al-Qaeda colleagues now concentrated in North Waziristan and on the border with Afghanistan,” wrote Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad last year. He added that the Hellfire missiles were getting “ever closer” to important terrorist operatives.
Al-Qaeda has also reappeared in isolated areas of Afghanistan where it has set up several training camps along the north-eastern border with Pakistan. Rather than a victory, this development can be interpreted as a sign of the drone campaign’s success. Relentlessly hunted in Pakistan by the Hellfire missile and the target of invisible informers selling information on their whereabouts to intelligence agents, al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives might very well be seeking safety across the border rather than remain in a dangerous environment.
But life for Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan is really no safer. The US military is waiting for them. A US air strike last September killed “dozens of Arabs” in an al-Qaeda camp that Special Forces troops had spied out. Among the dead were two top al-Qaeda operatives. Last December, American forces in Afghanistan captured another top al-Qaeda figure. A Taliban commander was also killed when he returned home from Pakistan.
To his credit, President Obama has gauged the effectiveness of the drone attacks and has increased their use since coming into office. The drone has been called the Western militaries’ symmetrical answer to al Qaeda’s asymmetrical warfare. Osama bin Laden and those of his ilk could never have conceived of such a relentless and deadly high tech weapon as the drone in 2001 and had no response to it for years except suicide attacks. The drone is also the weapon that has been settling scores for some time with terrorists with American blood on their hands.
The Pakistani government’s turning against the drone campaign is, in some ways ways, also extremely hypocritical. Its officials often fail to mention that the drones’ Taliban and al-Qaeda targets have kidnapped and murdered more people in Pakistan than Hellfire missiles have killed. Moreover, Pakistan’s leaders themselves have used American drones to kill Pakistani Taliban (TTP) operatives that have “targeted the Pakistani government and security forces.” Pakistani politicians were clearly not overly concerned about their popular standing or about civilian casualties when the drone was serving their interests.
Among those who met their demise from a Hellfire missile were the TTP’s founder and suspected organizer of Bhutto’s assassination, Beitullah Mehsud. Officially, Pakistani politicians deny being part of the drone campaign and criticize it publicly, while the ISI assists it.
In response to the Pakistani cancellation demand, the US military has not committed to adjusting the drone program. The CIA operates covertly, so under U.S. law the drone campaign doesn’t need Pakistsani approval.
The drone has been the US’s most effective weapon against al-Qaeda, battering it constantly and keeping it off balance. The US military must simply continue the drone attacks and ignore Pakistani “sovereignty.” 9⁄11 revealed, in the most tragic of ways, that the stakes are too high to allow al-Qaeda any respite in Pakistan’s border regions.
With its demand against the drones, the Pakistani government is engaging in appeasement and appeasement will only encourage more aggression both against Pakistan and the rest of the world. The Islamic extremists will only exploit this ominous show of weakness to worsen the persistent, violent unrest in Pakistan which could lead to a further neutralizing, or even overthrow, of Pakistan’s government by predatory Islamist terrorist entities and the descent of a nuclear-armed Pakistani state into chaos. This would have incalculable strategic consequences in the West’s war against jihad.