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Friday, April 17, 2009

‘Drone strikes not so intolerable to Islamabad’

American newspaper claims agreement for unmanned aircraft to strike in Tribal Areas initially negotiated with Musharraf, later with Zardari

Daily Times Monitor

LAHORE: While both Pakistan and the United States sides have grown accustomed to a diplomatic dance around the drones, behind the scenes, Pakistani officials may put up with the drones for more than Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi's statement last week would suggest, The New York Times has claimed.

"If the government of Pakistan was not convinced of the efficacy of the drone attacks, why would they be asking for the technology?" the newspaper quoted Prof Riffat Hussain as saying rhetorically. Professor Hussain lectures at the National Defence University.

Musharraf, Zardari: The paper claims that permission for the aircraft to strike in the Tribal Areas was negotiated by the Bush administration with former president Pervez Musharraf and later with President Asif Ali Zardari. It insists that the cooperation has been successful. Nine out of 20 senior operatives from Al Qaeda on a list compiled last year have been killed – an American claim Pakistan does not dispute.

But Pakistanis' discomfort with the drones is real. The issue is the trade-off between decapitating the militant hierarchy and the risk of further destabilising Pakistan by provoking retaliatory attacks from terrorists, and by driving the Taliban and Al Qaeda deeper into Pakistan. Then there is the matter of the civilian casualties. The deaths make it difficult for any Pakistani leader to support the drones publicly, and the Pakistani disavowals only reinforce the popular notion that the war on terror merely furthers America's interests, not Pakistan's own.

About 500 civilians have been killed in the drone attacks, according to Lt Gen (r) Talat Masood. But, he says, the government has not pointed out that many of those killed may have been hosting Al Qaeda militants.

According to a limited survey, people living in the Tribal Areas under the militants' grip may be more accepting of the attacks than other Pakistanis. The survey, described as unscientific, was conducted in North and South Waziristan and Kurram Agency, by a group belonging to the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy.

Meanwhile, the US media has said that the US drone programme is actually weakening Pakistan's defence against the insurgency by killing large numbers of civilians based on 'faulty intelligence' and discrediting the Pakistani military, according to data from the Pakistani government and interviews with senior analysts.

"Some evidence indicates, moreover, that the top officials in the Barack Obama administration now see the programme more as an 'incentive' for the Pakistani military to take a more aggressive posture towards the terrorists rather than as an effective tool against the insurgents," said the Inter Press Service (IPS). "Although the strikes have been sold to the US public as a way to weaken and disrupt Al Qaeda, which is an explicitly counter-terrorist objective, Al Qaeda is not actually the main threat to US security emanating from Pakistan," according to some analysts. "The real threat comes from the broader, rapidly growing insurgency of Islamic militants against the shaky Pakistani government and military," they observe, and the drone strikes are a strategically inappropriate approach to that problem.

"Al Qaeda has very little to do with the militancy in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan," said Marvin Weinbaum, former Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence Research at the US Department of State and now scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute.

John McCreary, a senior intelligence analyst for the Defence Intelligence Agency until his retirement in 2006, agrees with Weinbaum's assessment. "The drone programme is supposed to be all about Al Qaeda," he told IPS in an interview, but in fact, "the threat is much larger."

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