Drone attacks and ground assaults
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Whether it was General Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship or Asif Ali Zardari’s democratic set-up, the government came to the conclusion that it cannot afford to antagonize the US by trying to attack the CIA-operated Predator planes that fly unchallenged over Pakistan’s tribal areas and frequently fire missiles at targets deemed hostile to America and its allies. Apart from the occasional feeble protests at violation of our airspace and sovereignty, the preferred policy has always been to express ignorance about such attacks even if innocent Pakistanis are killed, injured and maimed.
Under Musharraf, the unwise policy of claiming responsibility for missile strikes launched by the US military was quickly discarded after it became evident that Pakistan’s security forces were becoming target of retaliatory suicide bombings by the militants. Days after the Pakistan Army claimed responsibility for the US missile attack that killed 82 young students at a madressah in Bajaur, it was shocked by a suicide bombing at a military training centre in Dargai in which 42 soldiers lost their lives. Keeping quiet or feigning ignorance over US military intrusions and missile attacks was a better policy than taking ownership of assaults that were committed by someone else.
The policy now being followed is to ignore the missile strikes by the US drones and try and stop ground forces crossing the Pak-Afghan border and attacking Pakistani villages in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The decision to combat intrusions into Pakistani territory was prompted by the US Special Operation Forces’ provocative attack recently on a Pakistani hamlet near Angoor Adda in South Waziristan and the killing of 20 innocent villagers, including five women and four children. That those killed were all civilians was borne out by the fact that the authorities in South Waziristan paid cash compensation to the heirs of the deceased in a bid to do some damage control and calm down angry tribesmen seeking revenge against the US for its act of unprovoked aggression. It is true that sections of the US and western media still refer to those killed in this ground offensive as militants and terrorists and President George W Bush’s administration has refused to admit its mistake and apologize for the crime of killing innocent people. But this is nothing new and such an arrogant attitude has created a lot more enemies for the US and made it one of the least liked countries in the world.
In private conversation, senior government functionaries argue that an attack on the US drones entering Pakistani territory would escalate tension on the Pak-Afghan border and affect relations with the US. It is pointed out that Pakistan Air Force’s F-16 jet-fighters were capable of shooting down the pilotless planes that fly at heights of 18,000 to 20,000 feet or the Pakistan Army’s long-range artillery guns could hit the drones while flying at low altitude. The anti-aircraft guns normally cannot reach or hit targets at the height at which the Predator or the new Reaper pilotless planes fly. Even while flying at low altitude, the drones come down rapidly at a lightning speed and would, therefore, not be easy for a normal anti-aircraft artillery gun to target accurately.
The policy then is to let the US drones attack any number of targets in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and hope that the Hellfire missiles being fired at hideouts of suspected militants in populated areas would cause fewer civilian casualties. There is always concern that the “collateral damage” would trigger protests in the country and could have political repercussions. But efforts are made not to let the situation go out of control. One such effort recently seen was the decision to scramble Mirage planes into the skies of North Waziristan and scare away the drones that had been flying over Pakistani villages for hours. The US spy planes reportedly flew out of Pakistani airspace much to the applause and satisfaction of the tribal population of North Waziristan even though the Mirages never fired at the drones. However, this isn’t done every time the US drones intrude into Pakistani territory.
On two other occasions, however, the situation could have gone out of hand as there was real worry over escalation of hostilities on the Durand Line border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Once near Angoor Adda where South Waziristan is bounded by Afghanistan’s Paktika province, Pakistan Army troops released artillery flares to light up the night-time sky and then the soldiers and the tribesmen fired at US jet-fighters and helicopters that clearly were intending to intrude into Pakistani territory for a possible ground assault. The magnesium-powder used in the parachute flares lit up the area with its whitish-reddish light and made it risky for the US Special Forces to attempt another ground operation in South Waziristan. The tribesmen, among them militants, used the Russian-made Dachaka guns to fire at the intruding choppers, which then landed in Afghan territory close to the border instead of crossing into Pakistani territory. A US Army brigadier contacted a Pakistan Army brigadier soon after the incident and threatened to send in B-52 bombers to ‘plaster’ Pakistani forces in the border area. The Pakistani military officer refused to be intimidated and asked his American counterpart to go ahead and do whatever he wanted. Later, senior US military officials contacted top Pakistan Army officers to calm down the situation and explain the circumstances in which the American brigadier made his provocative remarks to his Pakistani counterpart.
In the second instance, a similar incident happened on the border between North Waziristan and Afghanistan’s Khost province. The Chinook helicopters bringing US Special Forces reportedly turned back after the artillery flares released by Pakistan Army troops lit up the sky and made an intrusion very risky. The two incidents apparently sent the message home to the US military that the Pakistani armed forces would act if another ground offensive was attempted. Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s warning that violation of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty would not be tolerated was, therefore, meant to be taken seriously. However, it is another matter that the military at this stage doesn’t want to escalate tension with the US by attacking the intruding drones but it is willing to prevent ground offensives in Pakistani territory.
With regard to the US drone attacks, it needs to be conceded that some of the missile strikes have been fairly accurate in taking out foreign militants and their Pakistani hosts in both South and North Waziristan. The estimate by an unnamed senior Pakistan government functionary that 98 per cent of the US missile strikes were right on target may be far-fetched, but the fact remains that technology and human intelligence provided by the scores of Pakistani and Afghan tribesmen spying for the US have enabled the Americans to attack militants while they are holding meetings, taking meals or sleeping. Without ground intelligence using the GPS to point out potential targets, the drones may not succeed in going for the kill. There seem to be hundreds of informers working for the US in the tribal areas without the knowledge and agreement of the Pakistan government and the Taliban militants may not be wrong when they claim to have apprehended some of them and then have them summarily executed or beheaded.
The tribal borderlands have become dangerous places with all those revenge killings and blood-feuds and the bloodshed is bound to increase now that the government has made it a policy to assist anti-Taliban tribesmen to raise armed lashkars to fight the militants. It is a gamble that may or may not pay off in achieving the government objective of weakening the militants’ control in FATA and some of the Frontier districts but it would certainly sow the seeds of further polarization in the heavily-armed tribal society and forever pit one tribe or clan against another.
Also, the US military through its drone attacks in Pakistani territory would surely manage to kill some of its enemies but every missile strike invariably causes civilian deaths and contributes to the anti-America and pro-Taliban sentiment. Avoiding civilian casualties in aerial strikes is impossible and the US has already learnt it at great cost to its reputation that the “collateral damage” in Afghanistan has made the war against Taliban un-winnable. It surely would not want to meet the same fate while fighting the so-called ‘war on terror” in Pakistan.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahimyusufzai @yahoo.com (The News)