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Bracing for More Drone Attacks

by Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI - On Jan 23, days after Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States, a series of missiles slammed into Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border -- in continuation of Washington's policy of targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban elements regardless of sovereignty issues.

Supporters of the Pakistani Islamist party Jamat-e-Islami chant slogans during a protest in Karachi, January 25, 2009. The protest was organised by Jamat-e-Islami party against military operations and drone attacks in tribal areas. U.S. drones fired missiles into Pakistan late on Friday killing 17 people, intelligence officials and residents said, in the first such strike since Barack Obama became U.S. president. (Reuters/Athar Hussain/Pakistan) "The drone attacks anger Pakistanis because the government, in cahoots with the media, refuses to explain that Pakistani governments have been complicit in seeking rent from Washington to fight what now appears to be America's war," said military analyst, Ayesha Siddiqa.

Drones or remote-controlled are pilotless aircraft that hover high in the skies and fire missiles with accuracy at selected targets, but in Pakistan they have caused significant ‘collateral damage' to civilian populations.

In 2008, there were 32 such attacks on Islamist militant sites, killing 216 terrorists and 84 civilians, according to a report by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based think tank.

More than 134 civilians have died, so far, in missile attacks within Pakistani territory and no other country in the world has been subjected to such a sustained campaign using drones. The attacks followed Washington's perception that Pakistan was not doing enough to stop cross-border operations by Islamist militants or, more recently, attacks on supply routes to Afghanistan through Pakistan.

Siddiqa, who got into the military's crosshairs after the publication in 2007 of her book, ‘Military Inc., The politics of Military's Economy in Pakistan', said Obama was only protecting U.S. interests. "His understanding is that despite payment of 12 billion US dollars Pakistan has not delivered [on its commitment to go after al-Qaeda and Taliban holed up in the tribal areas].''

Obama's policy appears to be one of using a smaller carrot and a bigger stick to get the Pakistan army to stick to its side of the bargain. On his first day in office he said that the delivery of non-military annual aid worth 1.5 billion dollars to Pakistan would depend on "performance" in combating extremists.

Washington has also deducted 55 million dollars from reimbursements for expenses billed by Pakistan for war-on-terror expenses - releasing only 101 million dollars against Pakistan's claim of 156 million dollars.

This approach has bred resentment in Pakistan and President Asif Ali Zardari said, in an article in the Washington Post published on Jan. 28, that this country did not "need lectures" on its commitment to the war but "assistance".

‘'Frankly, the abandonment of Afghanistan and Pakistan after the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s set the stage for the era of terrorism that we are enduring. U.S. support for the priorities of dictatorship back then, and again at the start of the new millennium, neglected the social and economic development of our nation, the priorities of the people,'' Zardari wrote.

Nasim Zehra, a political analyst said in her column published on Feb. 4 in ‘The News', a leading English-language daily, that "to aid Pakistan in tracking and fighting militants operating within Pakistani territory and from keeping its Pakistan-Afghan border secure, Washington should provide Pakistan the military means that Pakistani forces have repeatedly requested to ensure effective intelligence gathering..."

"At this stage Pakistan cannot afford to reduce the strength and budget of the army," says Sher Zaman Taizai, a noted Pakhtun writer, and formerly Pakistan's defence attaché to Kabul. "The civil armed forces in most parts of the frontier province are not strong enough to control the situation."

According to Taizi, Pakistani army operations in the north-west have been funded by the U.S. "With the cut in funds, the army may have to withdraw and the militant groups in the tribal areas will move further into the settled districts; and that will pose a great danger to survival of Pakistan."

All through 2008, following every air-strike, the Pakistan government was seen vehemently protesting to the U.S. about collateral damage.

"They are controlled and conducted by CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] deployed in Afghanistan along the border and the Pakistan army is not informed of the attacks," said Taizi. "The U.S. intelligence agency is sceptical of the integrity of ISI [Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence]."

Mistrust between Washington and Islamabad deepened in September 2008 when the Pakistan's military stated that it had issued orders to ‘open fire' on U.S. soldiers crossing the border in pursuit of militants and news reports said that on Sep. 25, 2008 Pakistani troops actually fired at U.S. helicopters.

On Nov. 19, after a drone attack was carried out in Bannu, deeper into Pakistani territory and beyond the tribal areas, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, was summoned to the foreign ministry and a formal protest lodged with her.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, emphasised that attacks on targets within Pakistan were "counterproductive" and a ‘'violation of the country's sovereignty''.

But Ayaz Amir, a seasoned journalist and parliamentarian suggested that Gilani's words were meant only for "public consumption".

"There is no point in shedding crocodile tears. If we had any guts, we could have at least threatened to withdraw all cooperation [to the US] henceforth," said Amir. His reference was to a tacit understanding between Islamabad and Washington on how to stem militancy in the tribal areas.

There is now a growing fear that the militants are not only gaining ground in the remote tribal areas but also moving into the settled areas.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, resident editor of English-language daily, ‘The News', says the people of the tribal areas no longer trust anyone and suffer from what is akin to a ‘battered-child syndrome''.

"It [the drone attacks] sends different messages to the tribal people,'' said Yusfazia. ‘'One, that they have to fend for themselves and two, that the only force willing to fight the Americans are the Taliban."

Yusufzai, an expert on Taliban and Afghan issues, predicted that continued drone attacks will stoke anti-U.S. sentiments, and warm the local people to the Taliban in their fight to rid the region of foreign troops.

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