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Pakistan and US try 'new approach' to drone impasse

The US and Pakistan are trying out a new way to manage the drone problem. But in Pakistan, resentment is not abating.

Relations between Pakistan and the US are on the mend, it seems, after seven long months during which the US roared and threatened in every conceivable way, while Pakistan quietly but doggedly stuck to its position. Now the two countries seem finally to have reached an agreement and decided to move forward.

The issues between the two arose after the unilateral execution of Osama bin Laden in May of last year. In November, US forces attacked twin posts at Salala, in Pakistan, killing 24 soldiers. There are opposing views on why this happened, but the key point is that afterwards Pakistan wanted an apology the US would not offer.

Pakistan also had a long-standing concern about drone strikes, but the US said there was no "give" on that issue. Pakistan wanted an assurance that Salala would never be repeated; the US threatened more unilateral attacks if Pakistan did not come to heel.

While the "apology" that has now been offered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a mere palliative, Pakistanis can rightfully feel proud that their government (or military) proved that it is possible to stand up to the US.

But what are the pillars of the "new approach"? This notion must be viewed with caution since the agreement is not a written one - which seems to suit both parties - and since very few details have been made public.

What is known is that, following the mild apology, Pakistan has agreed to open Nato's "ground lines of communication" - lorry routes - into Afghanistan, with no additional charges. In return the US will release funds it has been withholding from the Pakistan military for their work in the "war on terror" and also development assistance money that was being held. And the US will provide more money for road maintenance.

Drone attacks will not cease but a formula acceptable to both countries - but not made public - has been worked out to govern future attacks. It is almost sure that the US has provided cast-iron guarantees that there will be no repeat of Salala, but details are unknown.

Even before Salala, drone attacks were sticking in the craw of Pakistan's army; headquarters said the attacks were counterproductive.

But the CIA maintained that these lethal, amazingly accurate attacks were the most economic method of targeting Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership. Pakistan, however, kept talking about the deaths of innocent women and children.

A former US brigadier general, Craig Nixon, has admitted that drone strikes can in fact kill the wrong people.

The drones are usually lethal and deadly accurate. They are equipped with every technological support device known to man and their remote handlers can view their activity live. Indeed, the American claim that drones "cannot miss" is essentially true.

Paradoxically, so is the claim by all countries that are subjected to drone strikes, that they often strike innocent civilians - and the US knows this to be true.

Drone handlers are given a location to target - frequently a house or other building, sometimes just a grid reference. The drone is faithfully guided to its target and kills effectively. But the efficacy of the drone strikes depends entirely on whether the handlers have been provided the correct location or individual(s) to target.

The intelligence business is divided into two broad categories: electronic intelligence (Elint) and human intelligence (Humint). The CIA has the world's most high-tech Elint capability. On the other hand, its Humint capability is often zero.

The CIA is entirely dependent on information it purchases, frequently from supporters of the very people it wants to target. These "informers" point them to a target of their choosing and the drone is accurately directed - to kill women and children.

Pakistan's military intelligence service ISI, on the other hand, has a very modest Elint capability and so depends on well-configured Humint.

This is what Pakistan sought to merge with the CIA's Elint to make drone strikes more effective. But the high level of mutual distrust was preventing this from happening. One can but hope that the new agreement will combine the capabilities of the two to minimise "collateral damage".

Judging by a drone strike on July 6, the process has begun, although procedures will not likely be defined fully until the ISI's director-general visits the US to meet his CIA counterpart.

But Pakistan has a problem: since 2007 it has been capable of shooting down US drones, but it won't do so, and Pakistanis know that and resent it.

As long as the US continues to kill the innocent, therefore, many Pakistanis consider their own government complicit, and cowardly, for not shooting down these deadly intruders.

The unilateral execution of bin Laden and the slaughter at Salala only served to reconfirm this public view.

With each innocent death, domestic resentment against Pakistan's government and military rise, a sure recipe for disaster.

That is why the apology was of such great significance.

How can Pakistan's military continue to receive support of its citizens in its war against domestic terrorists, if it is viewed as complicit or cowardly because it fails to protect innocent Pakistanis from US drones?

The US has stoked enough instability in Pakistan already. It is to be hoped that this "new approach", whatever the details are, includes measures that will ensure that no further damage is done to Pakistan.

 

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer

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