x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

America's remote-control war in Pakistan

The most widely discussed element in the new US strategy for the war in Afghanistan laid out recently by the President Barack Obama was his decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops. Of equal importance was what he left unsaid. In its efforts to pressure Islamabad to dismantle the Taliban leadership the US is considering expanding its use of missile attacks from unmanned drones to include targets in Quetta, although mass civilian casualties might be the result.

The most widely discussed element in the new US strategy for the war in Afghanistan recently laid out by President Barack Obama was his decision to deploy 30,000 additional American troops. What he left unsaid may turn out to be of equal importance. As New York Times reported on December 1: "quietly, Mr Obama has authorised an expansion of the war in Pakistan as well - if only he can get a weak, divided, suspicious Pakistani government to agree to the terms. "In recent months, in addition to providing White House officials with classified assessments about Afghanistan, the CIA delivered a plan for widening the campaign of strikes against militants by drone aircraft in Pakistan, sending additional spies there and securing a White House commitment to bulk up the CIA's budget for operations inside the country. "The expanded operations could include drone strikes in the southern province of Baluchistan, where senior Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding, officials said. It is from there that they direct many of the attacks on American troops, attacks that are likely to increase as more Americans pour into Afghanistan. " 'The president endorsed an intensification of the campaign against al Qa'eda and its violent allies, including even more operations targeting terrorism safe havens,' said one American official. 'More people, more places, more operations.'" Two weeks later, it was unclear what has been decided and what remained a matter of contention. On December 12, Newsweek reported: "A clandestine CIA search-and-destroy programme, which launches missile strikes from remotely piloted drone aircraft, has killed more than a dozen senior leaders of al Qa'eda during the last two years. Among the dead: Abu Khabab al-Masri, reputed to be al Qa'eda's top expert on weapons of mass destruction, and Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban and reputed mastermind of the murder of Benazir Bhutto. US government spokesmen won't even confirm the programme's existence, but a US national-security official - who, like others cited in this article, declined to be named talking about sensitive information - says the programme has been so successful that some counterterrorism officials want to expand it. They say the drones have been effective not just in killing terrorists but also in keeping them on the run and disrupting their ability to plan new attacks. They have asked for authority to target terrorists in more densely populated areas of Pakistan. "One person standing in the way of expanded missile strikes: President Obama. Five administration officials tell Newsweek that the president has sided with political and diplomatic advisers who argue that widening the scope of the drone attacks would be risky and unwise. Obama is concerned that firing missiles into urban areas like Quetta, where intelligence reports suggest that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and other high-level militants have sometimes taken shelter, would greatly increase the risk of civilian casualties. It would also draw protests from Pakistani politicians and military leaders, who have been largely quiet about the drone attacks as long as they've been confined to the country's out-of-sight border region. The White House has been encouraged by Pakistan's own recent military efforts to root out militants along the Afghan border, and it does not want to jeopardise that cooperation." If, as Newsweek suggests, Mr Obama is opposed to broadening the scope of the missile attacks, a report in the Los Angeles Times indicates that the issue remains under consideration. "Senior US officials are pushing to expand CIA drone strikes beyond Pakistan's tribal region and into a major city in an attempt to pressure the Pakistani government to pursue Taliban leaders based in Quetta. "The proposal has opened a contentious new front in the clandestine war. The prospect of Predator aircraft strikes in Quetta, a sprawling city, signals a new US resolve to decapitate the Taliban. But it also risks rupturing Washington's relationship with Islamabad. "The concern has created tension among Obama administration officials over whether unmanned aircraft strikes in a city of 850,000 are a realistic option. Proponents, including some military leaders, argue that attacking the Taliban in Quetta - or at least threatening to do so - is crucial to the success of the revised war strategy President Obama unveiled last week. " 'If we don't do this - at least have a real discussion of it - Pakistan might not think we are serious,' said a senior US official involved in war planning. 'What the Pakistanis have to do is tell the Taliban that there is too much pressure from the US; we can't allow you to have sanctuary inside Pakistan anymore.' "But others, including high-ranking US intelligence officials, have been more sceptical of employing drone attacks in a place that Pakistanis see as part of their country's core. Pakistani officials have warned that the fallout would be severe. " 'We are not a banana republic,' said a senior Pakistani official involved in discussions of security issues with the Obama administration. If the United States follows through, the official said, 'this might be the end of the road.'" Meanwhile, The New York Times reported: "Demands by the United States for Pakistan to crack down on the strongest Taliban warrior in Afghanistan, Siraj Haqqani, whose fighters pose the biggest threat to American forces, have been rebuffed by the Pakistani military, according to Pakistani military officials and diplomats. "The Obama administration wants Pakistan to turn on Mr Haqqani, a longtime asset of Pakistan's spy agency who uses the tribal area of North Waziristan as his sanctuary. But, the officials said, Pakistan views the entreaties as contrary to its interests in Afghanistan beyond the timetable of President Obama's surge, which envisions drawing down American forces beginning in mid-2011. " 'The demands, first made by senior American officials before President Obama's Afghanistan speech and repeated many times since, were renewed in a written demarche delivered in recent days by the United States Embassy to the head of the Pakistani military, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, according to American officials. Gen David Petraeus followed up on Monday during a visit to Islamabad. "The demands have been accompanied by strong suggestions that if the Pakistanis cannot take care of the problem, including dismantling the Taliban leadership based in Quetta, Pakistan, then the Americans will by resorting to broader and more frequent drone strikes in Pakistan."

pwoodward@thenational.ae