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USA - PAKISTAN: Diminishing Drones

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By Anurag Tripathi
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

As the drawdown deadline inches closer, the United States (US) appears to have begun to appease its ‘ally’ in the war against terror, to ensure support for a safer passage to its troop as they return home. Crucially, US drone operations in Pakistan have been considerably scaled down. This is a significant change from what was witnessed during the earlier years of Barack Obama's presidency.

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the US has carried out at least 277 drone attacks, resulting in over 2,548 fatalities since 2005 (all data till August 25, 2013). While drone strikes and resultant fatalities increased every year till the peak of 2010, they started to fall thereafter. Significantly, in comparison to 273 fatalities in 34 drone attacks in 2012, till August 25, the current year has witnessed only 15 such attacks and 112 fatalities over the same period.

Drone attacks in Pakistan: 2005-2013

Year

Incidents

Killed

Injured

2005

1

1

0

2006

0

0

0

2007

1

20

15

2008

19

156

17

2009

46

536

75

2010

90

831

85+

2011

59

548

52

2012

46

344

37

2013

15

112

20

Total*

277

2548

301+

 Source: SATP, *Data till August 25, 2013

According to the New America Foundation (NAF), a total of 2788 people have been killed in US drone attacks since 2005. According to the NAF data, five people were killed in 2005, 94 in 2006, 63 in 2007, 298 in 2008, 549 in 2009, 849 in 2010, 517 in 2011, 306 in 2012 and 107 in 2013 (till August 25).

The last major drone attack (involving three or more killings) took place on July 28, 2013, when eight Taliban terrorists were killed in a US drone attack at a house in the Shawal valley of North Waziristan Agency (NWA) in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Some other important drone attacks in 2013 include:

July 2: At least 17 suspected terrorists of al Qaeda and Haqqani Network were killed and two others were injured in a drone attack at a house in the Sirai Darpakhel area of Miranshah in NWA.

June 7: A US drone strike killed seven unidentified terrorists in the Shokhel village of NWA.

May 29: A US drone strike killed the deputy 'chief' of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Waliur Rehman, the ‘number two’ in TTP, along with at least five other terrorists in the Chashma village of NWA.  

April 17: At least nine Taliban terrorists, including five foreigners, were killed in a US drone attack in the Bobar Samal area of South Waziristan Agency (SWA) in FATA.

February 8: Seven al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists were killed and another six were injured when US drones fired six missiles and pounded two separate mud-built houses in the Babar area of Ladha subdivision in SWA.  

January 10: At least six unidentified terrorists were killed in a US drone attack at Heso Khel village in NWA.

January 8, 2013: At least eight unidentified terrorists were killed and another four were injured when US drones attacked militant hideouts in the villages of Haider Khel and Hisokhel in NWA.

January 6, 2013: At least 17 suspected Taliban terrorists were killed and another eight sustained injuries in US drone attacks in the Babar area of Ladha subdivision in SWA.

January 3, 2013: TTP leader Maulvi Nazir was among 10 terrorists killed in a US-operated drone strike in the Sarkundi area of Birmal tehsil in SWA.

The US drone attacks had been initiated with the principal objective of flushing out al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders and operatives who had taken shelter in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Later when the TTP, formed in 2007, stated providing critical support to al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, the drones started targeting their leaders and operatives as well. The effectiveness of the drones has been beyond question, particularly in view of the fact that Pakistani Security Forces (SFs) had consistently failed to eliminate any significant top leader of terrorist groups who have taken shelter in Pakistan, and who was fighting the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

According to a July 29, 2013, report in The Long War Journal, 79 top terrorists, including Baitullah Mehsud (former TTP ‘commander’), Osama al Kini alias Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam (al Qaeda's operations chief for Pakistan), Mustafa Abu Yazid alias Sheikh Saeed al Masri (an al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan and top financial controller), Mohammed Haqqani (a mid-level Haqqani Network ‘military commander’ and brother of the outfit’s leader Sirajuddin Haqqani), Abdul Basit Usman (the US had a USD one million bounty on his head), and Abu Jihad al Masri (the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group and the chief of al Qaeda's intelligence branch), Abu Usman Adil (the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), and Waliur Rehman (the deputy ‘chief’ of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and the group's leader in South Waziristan), had been killed in drones strikes in FATA since 2004.

Despite these dramatic successes, there is nothing to suggest that the situation has been brought under control on ground, and that the campaign needs to be scaled down. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report published on July 31, 2013, Afghanistan has recorded 1,319 civilian casualties in first six months of 2013, a 23 per cent rise than the number in 2012 over the same period (1,072 civilian casualties were recorded in 2012). Among these, 443 civilians were killed and 917 were injured by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), a 34 per cent increase over the same period in 2012. Also noted was the increase in targeted killings, attacks against civilian Government workers and high levels of threats and intimidation, which the report attributed to ‘Anti-Government Elements’.

Despite these adverse trends, the US has slowed down drone operations under Pakistani pressure, as the Obama administration fears that Pakistani covert support to the Afghan Taliban and other Pak-backed terrorist formations operating in Afghanistan could significantly jeopardize the safety of its troops in the final phases of their ‘withdrawal’. 

The drone strikes have come under severe criticism in Pakistan, with alleged ‘collateral damage’ becoming a critical issue. The May 11, 2013, General Elections further raised the temperature on US drone attacks, with two major political parties – the Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – citing these as a ‘major complication’ in US-Pakistan relations. An official statement, issued after the first meeting of the Nawaz Sharif Cabinet on June 10, 2013, quoted him as saying, "The policy of protesting against drone strikes for public consumption, while working behind the scenes to make them happen, is not on.” The Sharif Government has, since, vigorously opposed the US drone campaign in Pakistan.

Earlier, on May 9, 2013, the Peshawar High Court had ordered that drones entering Pakistani airspace be shot down. Observing that drone attacks constitute a violation of international law and basic human rights, and also violate the territorial sovereignty of Pakistan, the Court observed that drone attacks should be declared a war crime, and issued wide-ranging directives to the Federal Government and Security Forces to ensure the halt of such attacks. These directives included the raising of the issue at the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) and the General Assembly. A bench comprising Chief Justice Dost Mohammad Khan and Justice Musarrat Hilali gave the ruling on the four identical writ petitions against the US drone attacks. The four petitions were filed by several leaders of the Defence of Pakistan Council (DPC), Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), tribal elder Malik Noor Khan and lawyer FM Sabir.

Mounting pressure and the uncertainty of its enterprise and objectives in Afghanistan have forced the US to change its stance time and again in recent past. Significantly, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in a statement released on February 6, 2013, claimed, "These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise." However, US Secretary of State John Kerry on August 2, 2013, declared that the US was ‘making progress’ in the war on terror, and hoped to end the use of drone strikes "very soon", adding, "I believe that we're on a good track. I think the program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it." Kerry, however, did not provide any specifics on the timeline.

The US worry over safe and secure withdrawal from Afghanistan has forced it to bend before Pakistani pressure and the steep decline in drone attacks is the natural fallout. Nevertheless, the terrorist leadership that has taken shelter in Pakistan’s tribal areas, with overwhelming evidence suggesting state complicity, continues to threaten US objectives in Afghanistan, and in the wider Asian region. Unable to sustain its war against the enduring threat of Islamist extremist terrorism sourced from Pakistan, the US is making desperate overtures to ‘buy peace’ from an intractable enemy, potentially jeopardizing the security of the entire region, and, likely, wider theatres across the world.

[Source: SATP]

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