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America, Pakistan, Drone Politics

4 Min
America, Pakistan, Drone Politics

Predator drone over Pak airspace

A US predator drone strike killed 25 people in the village of Spinwam in North Waziristan on April 23. The dead included at least five children and four women.

In response to mounting public outrage, Pakistan’s government has repeatedly denounced the US drone strikes in recent months, calling them “unhelpful” and urging that they be discontinued or at least massively scaled back. But the Obama administration and the Pentagon have brushed these complaints aside, publicly insisted that the missile strikes are a pivotal part of the Af-Pak War, and continued to mount such strikes at a rate of well over one per week.

The Spinwam strike came on the eve of a two-day mass sit-in against the drone attacks that its organizers claim will mobilize hundreds of thousands of people. Protesters—including persons who have been displaced by the drone strikes and the counter-insurgency war that the Pakistani military has mounted in the tribal areas of Pashtun majority northwest— are to take to the streets of Peshawar, with the stated aimed of disrupting NATO shipments to Afghanistan.

Claiming it fears violence, Pakistan’s government has announced that the US-NATO supply shipments will be suspended for the duration of the protest

The capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkwa (the former North West Frontier Provinces), Peshawar serves as the administrative center for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)—the site of virtually all the US drone attacks.

Peshawar is also the gateway to the Khyber Pass, a vital supply line for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. While the US has gone to great lengths in recent years to develop alternate supply routes, the bulk of the food and fuel that supports the almost 150,000 US-NATO forces in Afghanistan still goes through Pakistan.

The April 23 anti-drone sit-in has been called by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice), a rightwing political party founded and led by former cricket star Imran Khan. He terms the US drone attacks as “state-sponsored terrorism.” And accuses Pakistan’s “rulers” of selling “national sovereignty for US dollars” and alleges they are complicit in the drone attacks.

Despite its professed opposition to the attacks, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP)-led government has never demanded an end to the strikes at the UN or in any other international forum. Recently, Interior Minister Rehman Malik blurted out that the attacks cannot be stopped. A senior army officer unabashedly defended the drone strikes earlier this month. Major-General Ghayur Mehmood told a press briefing, “Myths and rumours about US Predator strikes and the casualty figures are many, but it’s a reality that many of those being killed in these strikes are hard-core elements and a sizable number of them are foreigners.”

Imran Khan has claimed that a consensus for taking action against the drone strikes had emerged as a result of the popular outcry over Raymond Davis saga. His party is vowing to pursue a “two-way strategy” to oppose the drone strikes “that are killing innocent civilians”—“public pressure with the country and litigations at international courts of law.”

Several other rightwing and Islamic fundamentalist parties have announced their support for the anti-drone protest. These include the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat-Ulema-Islam-Fazl, both of which have historically enjoyed close relations with the military-security apparatus, and the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q).

The PLM (Q) is the political party created by General Pervez Musharraf to provide a civilian-democratic fig-leaf for his US-sponsored military dictatorship. Under Musharraf, Pakistan became the logistical linchpin of the US operations in Afghanistan. At Washington’s behest, the Pakistani military launched a counter insurgency war in the historically autonomous FATA that is now entering its eighth year, and gave the CIA carte blanche to mount predator missile strikes in FATA.

These drone strikes, which have increased many-fold under Obama, have understandably become the focal point for the Pakistani people’s opposition to the Afghan War and to the US neo-colonial domination of the country—a domination that is sustained through and epitomized by the alliance between the Pentagon and the Pakistani military.

That rightwing forces, including parties with intimate ties to the military-intelligence apparatus, are able to pose as leaders of the opposition to the drone-strikes speaks to the crisis in the making that raises doubts whether it is orchestrated to a purpose.

In 2007, Benazir Bhutto and her husband, the current president Asif Ali Zardari, sought at the urging and direction of the Bush administration to strike a power-sharing deal with Musharraf, to help shore up his regime. If this bargain ultimately unravelled, it was not for any of lack of trying on the part of the PPP leaders, but because elements in the Musharraf regime, if not the General himself, balked at parting with any real power. Since coming to the head of an elected civilian government, the PPP has sought to keep the generals at bay by proving to Washington that it is an even more dependable ally in the Afghan War than they.

The government and militaries of both the US and Pakistan are trying to use the drone strikes and the popular anger that they have evoked to further their own interests; each seeking to prod the other into pursuing a strategic course more to their liking.

The US has long been urging Pakistan to launch a new military offensive in North Waziristan. The drone strikes—and threats to have US military forces cross over into Pakistan—are meant to propel a reluctant Islamabad into action.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Pakistan this week. He is known in private talks to have pressed his Pakistani counterpart, General Kayani, to launch an offensive in North Waziristan forthwith. But Mullen also gave a series of media interviews in which he suggested that the Pakistani military’s reluctance to invade North Waziristan is bound up with its longstanding relations with the Afghan warlord and erstwhile US ally Jalaluddin Haqqani and his militia network.

“It is fairly well known, Mullen told the Dawn, “(that) ISI had a relationship with the Haqqani network and addressing the Haqqani network from my perspective is critical to the solution set in Afghanistan.” He went on to add that the Haqqani question is at the “core—it’s not the only thing— but [it’s] at the core… [of the] most difficult part of the [US-Pakistan] relationship.”

The Pakistan military is as indifferent and hostile to the needs and well being of the Pakistani people. In seeking to subjugate FATA it has used carpet-bombing, disappearances, and colonial-style collective punishments.

But like Washington, it is trying to exploit the drone strikes and the mass opposition to them in Pakistan to further its own ends. These include pressing Washington for more funds and weaponry, such as Predator drones, and a decisive say in Washington’s end-game for Afghanistan. In their bid to checkmate India on the Afghan theatre, the Pakistan army is determined to use what leverage they have due to US dependence on Pakistani support to further their own predatory interests.-

-Rama Rao with Keith Jones (