x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Drone attacks raise questions about who really benefits

The history of US drone attacks in Pakistan is clouded in questions about when and if the government approved different strikes.

Nek Muhammed, from the Pakistani Wazir tribe, was a veteran of the Afghan rebellion against the Soviets. In 2004 he was the most prominent of the Pakistani Pashtun tribesmen who were by then fighting against another foreign occupation of Afghanistan – this time by US and allied troops. He was killed in an air raid on June 18 of that year.

The government of Pakistan was quick to claim responsibility for the killing, but those with their ears to the ground were of the view that this was an American act.

It is believed to have been the first drone strike carried out by US forces on Pakistani soil. And, it was done at the request of Pakistan’s all-powerful president and army chief, Gen Pervez Musharraf.

According to journalist Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, the US had agreed to rid Pakistan of Nek on the condition that Pakistan would permit, and even assist in, future attacks on Pakistani soil against those the US deemed to be its enemies.

I cannot verify this information, but I cannot disprove it either. Whatever the truth is, it is certain that drone strikes became fairly regular events thereafter.

Between 2004 and 2007, each drone attack had tacit approval from the Pakistani government, despite the appalling statistic which estimated that 10 innocent bystanders died – many of them women and children – for each militant who was killed.

I am among those who believe that the CIA is an atrocious “intelligence” agency. It is actually an unofficial military force, one which is equipped with the best electronic intelligence support system in the world.

Real intelligence, however, comes from a combination of human and electronic intelligence. The CIA lost most of its capabilities and assets in human intelligence – its sources – at the end of the Cold War.

Thus the outsourcing to companies such as Blackwater Security Consulting – later called Xe Services and now known as Academi – and to people like Raymond Davis, who was under contract to the CIA when he killed two men in a Lahore shoot-out in January 2011.

The CIA began using such “outsourced” intelligence assets in 2005, but it generally took three years of cultivating sources before they began to be effective.

As US human intelligence got better, and just as the Pakistani army’s objections to drone strikes began to be audible, the kill ratio began to improve.

For a time it was virtually reversed, so that only two civilians died for each eight militants.

Prodded by the army, Asif Ali Zardari, then president, began to voice public objections to drone strikes – while supporting them in private. But as the kill ratio continued to improve, the army’s objections became muted.

During this period, from mid-2008 to early 2011, many tribal leaders in the frontier territories also came to view the drone strikes with approval. Many of these traditional leaders, who opposed the terrorists in their midst, were happy to see an increasing number of them being killed.

On one occasion in 2010, a friend of mine, burying his nephew and son-in-law who had been victims of a drone, expressed his satisfaction with the weapons all the same. The terrorists, this man told me, “also kill us and terrorise us. So long as drones target them in bulk, some deaths of innocent people are to be expected”.

However, the release of Raymond Davis in March 2011 changed all that. All suspicious US citizens, several hundred at least, were ejected from Pakistan.

This adversely affected the CIA’s ability to target militants. Irritated, CIA chief Leon Panetta ordered a couple of strikes that month: more than 40 innocent civilians attending a meeting were killed in one strike, not a single militant was hurt.

Following those attacks, Pakistan’s army chief issued his first serious public condemnation of the drone campaign.

Thereafter, with human intelligence capacity sharply reduced, the drones’ civilian kill ratio deteriorated again.

And yet there have also been remarkable successes, the latest being the drone death last Friday of Hakimullah Mehsud.

That killing is bound to have repercussions, particularly during the holy month of Muharram that began on Sunday evening. The Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) will avenge itself by shedding Pakistani blood. And, in due course, a replacement for Hakimullah will emerge.

TTP has numerous independent offshoots. Among them the Mehsud faction has long been considered Pakistan’s worst enemy. Despite a degree of infighting, it has remained united. But in recent months drone strikes have eliminated all recognised leaders of the Mehsuds. Will the next leader manage to retain control or will this faction split apart?

There are other unanswered questions as well. This attack comes immediately after Nawaz Sharif set foot back in Pakistan after bemoaning drone strikes during a visit to Washington. Pakistani political leaders are accusing the US of sabotaging Mr Sharif’s nascent negotiations with the TTP.

Was that the intention? Or was the US doing Pakistan a favour?

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer