Pakistan Rehearses Its Two-Step on Airstrikes
With two senior American officials at his side, the Pakistani foreign minister unleashed a strong rebuke last week, saying that American drone strikes against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas were eroding trust between the allies.
The Americans, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, and the special envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke, defended their strategy for Pakistan. Later, Mr. Holbrooke dismissed the salvo by the foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, saying it was to be expected.
In fact, both sides have grown accustomed to an unusual diplomatic dance around the drones. For all their public protests, behind the scenes, Pakistani officials may countenance the drones more than Mr. Qureshi’s reprimand would suggest, Pakistan and American analysts and officials say.
Why else would Pakistani military officials be requesting that the United States give them the drones to operate, asked Prof. Riffat Hussain, of the defense studies department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.
His answer is that senior Pakistani officials consider the drones one of their only effective tools against the militants. Moreover, using the drones takes pressure off the Pakistani Army, which has proved reluctant to fight the militants, or incapable of doing so, in the rugged mountains along the Afghan border.
“If the government of Pakistan was not convinced of the efficacy of the drone attacks, why would they be asking for the technology?” asked Professor Hussain, who also lectures at the National Defense University, the main scholarly institution for the military.
Most of the aircraft, about the size of a Cessna, take off with Pakistani assent from a base inside Pakistan, American and Pakistani officials acknowledge. A small group of Pakistani intelligence operatives assigned to the tribal areas help choose targets, while the drones, armed with Hellfire missiles, are remotely piloted from the United States, they said.
Permission for the aircraft to strike in the tribal areas was negotiated by the Bush administration with the former president, Pervez Musharraf, and then with the current leader, Asif Ali Zardari. The Obama administration has renewed those understandings, American and Pakistani officials say.
The cooperation has been successful. Nine out of 20 senior operatives from Al Qaeda on a list compiled last year have been killed, according to American military commanders, a fact the Pakistanis do not dispute.
But as effective as the attacks have proved, the Pakistanis’ discomfort with the drones is real. The larger issue surrounding the drone strikes is the trade-off between decapitating the militant hierarchy and the risk of further destabilizing Pakistan — by undercutting the military and civilian government, by provoking retaliatory attacks from the militants, and by driving the Taliban and Al Qaeda deeper into Pakistan in search of new havens.
Then there is the matter of public perception, particularly over the civilian casualties caused by the drone strikes, which infuriate Pakistani politicians and the media.
The deaths make it difficult for any Pakistani leader to support the drones publicly. At the same time, the Pakistani disavowals only reinforce the popular notion that the war against the militants merely furthers America’s interests, not Pakistan’s own.
In public, President Zardari, who is portrayed in much of the Pakistani media as slavishly pro-American, chooses to deny Pakistani participation in the strikes. Despite having agreed to their use, he says the drones represent an infringement of Pakistani sovereignty that the government cannot tolerate.
About 500 civilians have been killed in the drone attacks, Talat Masood, a former Pakistani general, estimates. But, he said, the government fails to point out that many of those killed are most likely hosting Qaeda militants and cannot be deemed entirely innocent.
Last week, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud, the two senior leaders of Tehrik-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban umbrella group, said the increasing tempo of drone attacks would drive them to respond with more serious terrorist attacks, even as many as two a week.
Another militant boss, Maulvi Nazir, threatened that the retaliation would include the capture of Islamabad, the capital. Last Thursday, in an interview with Al Sahab, the media arm of Al Qaeda, he said the drone attacks were the work of both the United States and the Pakistani Army.
As proof of his claims, Mr. Nazir’s group distributed a video showing young Pakistani tribesmen confessing to having been hired by the Pakistani military to pick targets for the drones.
The video was distributed and apparently shot in Wana, the main city of South Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold. As a finale, the video shows those who had confessed, including some from Mr. Nazir’s own group, executed for spying.
One intriguing aspect of the drone attacks is that people living in the tribal region under the militants’ grip may be more accepting of them than other Pakistanis, according to a recent but limited survey.
The survey, described as unscientific, was conducted in four urban centers in North and South Waziristan and Kurram, all in the tribal region, by a group of academics belonging to the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, a small Pakistani research group.
Its organizer, Khadim Hussain, a professor of linguistics and communication at Bahria University in Islamabad, an institution backed by the Pakistani Navy, stressed that the survey was only “exploratory.”
Of 650 people approached for the survey, 550 answered, according to the institute, which is financed by 10 academics and human rights workers, most of whom come from the tribal areas.
The survey was conducted by 25 graduate students from Islamabad who visited the tribal areas from November to January, Professor Hussain said. The margin of error was three to five percentage points, he said.
Asked whether militant groups were hurt by the drone attacks, 60 percent of the respondents said yes, and 40 percent no.
Asked whether anti-Americanism in the area had increased because of the drone attacks, 58 percent said it had not; 42 percent said it had.
To the question of whether the drone attacks were accurate, 52 percent said they were; 48 percent said they were not.
The results first stirred debate last month when they were published in a daily newspaper, The News. They were publicized again last week by The Daily Times, a pro-government newspaper.
In an editorial in support of the survey, The Daily Times said local reporters from Orakzai, a tribal area recently hit by a drone strike, found that the people “would actually want the drone attacks to continue to lessen the severity of the Tehrik-e-Taliban control over them.”
One reason the drone attacks received support in the tribal region is that they mostly single out Qaeda leaders who are of Arab descent, Professor Hussain said.
The Arabs are widely disliked by the Pashtun tribes that dominate the area because they try to enforce their strict Wahhabi version of Islam, Professor Hussain said.
The missile strikes do feed the militants’ propaganda machine, he said. “But if the drone attacks stopped,” he added, “I wouldn’t be sure that they would refrain from the terror attacks they have been doing all along.”