Shiffa Yousafzai |
According to international news agencies, and reports by Pakistani media, two suspected militants were killed on Thursday, Mar 2, by a U.S Drone strike near Pak-Afghan border. The pilot-less aircraft killed the two men while riding a motorbike in Kurram agency.
It is the first drone strike, inside Pakistani territory, since President Donald Trump took charge of the Oval office. Before this recent attack, there had been a lull for several months. Last drone strike was in May 2016, when a US pilotless plane fired Hellfire missiles to kill, the then Taliban leader, Mullah Mansour. This latest attack took place in the Sara Khwa area of Kurram agency. Attack on Mullah Mansour, had also eroded Taliban’s trust on Pakistani agencies whom they suspected of collaborating with the Americans- that further reduced Pakistan’s ability to bring Taliban to a negotiation table; something which both Washington and Kabul expect of Pakistan.
Haji Zamin Hussain, a local elder said, “A drone missile struck the motorcycle which caught on fire and then exploded.”
Most international news agencies have not identified the dead but Pakistani newspapers like Express Tribune have identified the dead bodies as Qari Abdullah Saibari, an Afghan Taliban commander for Khost province of Afghanistan, and Shakirullah a member of the same group. Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to United States, tweeted “Taliban confirm their senior commander died in the first US drone strike in Pakistan under Trump”
— Husain Haqqani (@husainhaqqani) March 3, 2017
Where is Kurram Agency?
Kurram agency is the part of FATA (Federally administered tribal areas); a region in Pakistan which historically lacked firm legal structure since the British era. Its autonomous nature and lack of formal administrative structure turned it into a safe haven for the Al Qaeda and Taliban cliques. This has been the hub of Islamist insurgency for more than a decade, after 9/11. Pakistan army, that executed several operations in tribal agencies of FATA after 2004, had launched its first major military operation named Koh-i-Sufaid in this area, after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Around 5000 troops were involved in operation Koh-i-Sufaid; 130 militants were killed and about 13,000 families were displaced.
In 2011, the operation in Kurram agency was said to be finished, clearing Kurram. The then Army Chief Gen. Asfhaq Parvez Kayani visited the region and declared it free of malefactors.
Before the Pakistan army’s first major operation in Kurram agency a prominent analyst Imtiaz Gul once said, “I think Kurram had become a black spot for the Pakistan Army.”
Kurram agency holds importance for all three: Pakistan, Afghanistan & the US. It shares a border with several Afghan provinces resulting in the large Afghan refugee population in the area. Kurram agency is the only tribal agency with 50% of its population belonging to Shia school of thought; the violence in the region also reflects its exploding sectarian tensions.
Mariam Abou Zahab, a Paris-based security expert who studies sectarianism in Pakistan had said, “Increasing sectarianism in Hangu, Kohat and DI Khan districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the Kurram and Orakzai agencies of FATA, is a result of the growing Taliban influence and the recent arrival of Punjabi Sunni militants.”
Pakistani people are very sensitive about drone strikes inside Pakistan, but it is often not out of sympathy for those who are targeted but because Pakistanis view it as the violation of their territory and country’s sovereignty. While no visible reaction emerged from Pakistani government of PM Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan, Chairman Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf, the main vocal opposition party, Imran Khan tweeted strong reaction on the drone attack; he condemned these as violation of human rights and sovereignity and totally counter-productive.
Condemn US drone strike on Pakistan. It is not only a violation of human rights and our sovereignty but also totally counterproductive.
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) March 3, 2017
Pattern of Drone Strikes inside Pakistan
Drone strikes started inside Pakistan under President George W Bush. But only one reported strike took place during the time President Musharraf ruled Pakistan – something to which Gen. Musharraf has made repeated references; latest a few weeks ago in an exclusive discussion, on Dunya News, with prominent TV Anchor, Moeed Pirzada.
While both sides – the US and Pakistan – remained quiet for a long time as if no drone strikes happened and the US side had never officially claimed them till very late in Obama presidency, leaked WikiLeaks revealed that often there was some sort of tacit understanding between both sides on this issue.
During PPP rule, when Gen. Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani, was Army Chief, and Obama administration had just begun, one senior Pakistani Army officer, held a formal briefing for the media in which a justification for drone strikes was offered. Reporters were told that drone strikes are precise and inexpensive than using F-16’s and provide access in those areas which are otherwise very difficult to reach. However as political criticism mounted, Army command then went silent, press briefing was forgotten and Pakistani politicians and media kept raising the issue. Though Pakistani Human Right groups have often ignored the drone strikes, international right organizations like Amnesty have severely criticized these drone strikes.
|Year||No of Drone Strikes||Killings|
Both the number of drone strikes and the targets eradicated markedly reduced in the past few years. Thus only a total of 3 strikes took place in 2016. Mounting international pressure, by right groups like, Amnesty International, and US and European media, was one of the main reasons.
Three different Presidents and three different patterns
Under President G. W. Bush, the total number of drone strikes inside Pakistan was reported to be 51, however most of these took place in an election year, giving way to the impression that drone strikes had assumed the form of a political tool to show muscle in domestic US politics. This impression was consolidated under Obama, who did not initiate any new conflicts, was initially seen as weak on national security and relied heavily upon drone strikes to show his muscle. President Obama’s two terms thus saw 542 drone strikes, across the world, where as President Trump has till now approved of 30 drone strikes in 41 days – out of these 30 drone strikes 29 drones were directed towards Yemen and one towards Pakistan.
President Trump, during his campaign for the Presidential elections, claimed to have opposed the Iraq invasion in 2003, claimed to have opposed the Libya intervention in 2011 and repeatedly created the impression that he is against the expensive foreign wars initiated or sustained by his predecessors. But those who believed that he will be less interventionist than Obama, at least when it comes to drone strikes, are now proving wrong.
Administration officials on Thursday said, “The White House is considering giving the Pentagon more independent authority to conduct counterterrorism raids as part of an effort to accelerate the fight against the Islamic State and other militant organizations.”
Significance of Trump’s First Drone Strike inside Pakistan?
This drone strike has followed, within days, of what has been described as a Pakistani strike into Afghanistan. Pakistani strike, understood to be a decision by its new Army Chief, Gen. Qamar Bajwa, followed terrorist attacks in Lahore and Sufi Shrine of Shahbaz Lal Qalandar
President Donald Trump is generally seen as some one without a clear position on South Asia – though his administration sends signals of finding a solution to the continuing imbroglio in Afghanistan. Given Trump administration’s signals of seeking Russian cooperation against Islamic militants, like ISIS, it was hoped that Afghan Taliban might find a seat on negotiation table – since Russian officials openly admit of having contacts with them. Both Russia and China consider ISIS with its internationalist agenda a bigger threat to regional security than the localized Afghan Taliban who have not demonstrated any extra-regional ambitions. Off late, Iran – traditional enemy of Afghan Taliban – has also started to share this position.
However, Trump administration is under severe stress on several fronts. Within the US, many powerful sections of politics still see new President as an alien to the system and Trump’s campaign team’s links with the Russian diplomats are under investigation. Trump’s initial choice of NSA, Gen. Michael Flynn, had to resign disgracefully and his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions had to recluse himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into Trump team’s Russia investigation. Resignation of Jeff Sessions at this stage cannot be ruled out.
Given these pressures, it appears that Drone Strikes may soon become to a beleaguered President Trump what they were always to Obama: Safety Valve on political Pressure Cooker. However, the momentum of these strikes may also start to define a new political reality on ground.
Signal to Pakistan & Challenge for its Army Chief, Gen. Bajwa?
whereas US and its affiliates have repeatedly talked of Afghan Taliban having sanctuaries on Pakistani soil, and US drones have attacked them in the past now its abundantly clear that terrorist groups – like Al Ahrar, TTP and ISIS are present on Afghan soil, targeting Pakistani cities and public. But despite their clear visibility – as obvious from easy targeting by Pakistani military – US drones have failed to target them.
The latest drone strike may also be hint of a different signal – reflecting the complexity on ground – from the US intelligence community. This drone strike has followed, within days, of what has been described as a Pakistani strike into Afghanistan. Pakistani strike, understood to be a decision by its new Army Chief, Gen. Qamar Bajwa, followed terrorist attacks in Lahore and Sufi Shrine of Shahbaz Lal Qalandar – more than 100 innocent people including many women, old and children died in these terrorist attacks. Both attacks were claimed by terrorist groups based inside Afghan territory. Though US has routinely condemned such attacks, it has never taken any practical steps against these terrorist groups; though they maintained open and visible presence on Pak-Afghan border, where Pakistani army easily targeted them by shelling. US, with its sophisticated drone strike capability, clearly has targeting capacity against Al-Ahrar, TTP and ISIS.
While the men killed on ground – like Qari Abdullah and his associate – may be of little significance to Afghan Taliban, but the US action serves to remind Pakistan that the US still finds remnants of Haqqani network – a fierce component of Afghan Taliban – on Pakistani ground.
So the fact that the first ever drone strike, in the region, has targeted “Afghan Taliban” – represents continuity of previous strategy set by CIA and Pentagon. But there is one difference, generally ignored by the western media, but a difference that should now focus all minds: whereas US and its affiliates have repeatedly talked of Afghan Taliban having sanctuaries on Pakistani soil, and US drones have attacked them in the past now its abundantly clear that terrorist groups – like Al Ahrar, TTP and ISIS are present on Afghan soil, targeting Pakistani cities and public. But despite their clear visibility – as obvious from easy targeting by Pakistani military – US drones have failed to target them.
— Mohammad Taqi (@mazdaki) March 3, 2017
Drone targeting is a much documented subject – thanks to excellent analysis by New York Times. Targets for drone strikes are seldom the choice of US president; he approves them when confronted by the recommendations which come all the way upwards from bottom. These targets represent the priorities of intelligence community; this drone strike thus signals that President Trump is gradually becoming hostage to pre-existing policy options on Afghanistan. This should worry Russians, Chinese and above all Pakistani strategists; all of whom expected some sort of break through with the arrival of Trump administration.
It also represents a difficult challenge for Pakistan’s new Army Chief who has been struggling to break away from the defined faultiness of the past: extending an olive branch to India and taking a more robust position on terrorists inside Afghanistan. The little mentioned “drone strike” of Thu, March 2, killing a little known Qari Abdullah, may compel him to think of the complexities all around and the “double games” others may have been playing.
Shiffa Yousafzai is a free lance journalist and researcher; she just completed her Masters in Multi-media journalism from Manchester Metropolitan University.Twitter: Shiffa_ZY. Analysis contains additional input from Global Village Space (GVS) Editorial team.