The drone attacks by the United States in the tribal areas (FATA) have become increasingly controversial in Pakistan. The U.S. argues that these attacks have been instrumental in targeting key Al-Qaeda leaders hidden in the tribal areas, as well as other terrorist groups using this area as a safe heaven to launch attacks on NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan. The U.S. further maintains that these drone attacks present the best possible alternative to ground-based (boots on the ground) incursions. Moreover, both unofficially and via media reports, the U.S. maintains that the attacks are carried out under a secret tacit agreement with the government of Pakistan. Senator Diane Feinstein(D-California) went so far as to claim that the drones are actually based in Pakistan and are launched from there against their targets; recent media reports suggest that the Pakistan conducts the groundwork for selection of the targets and then pass it on to the U.S.
Pakistan has denied – publicly and vehemently – the existence of any such agreement with the U.S. The country’s official position is that the drone attacks are counterproductive and do not achieve the coalition’s goal of winning the hearts and minds of the local people; that in fact they encourage the recruitment of more extremists. Recently, the Pakistani Taliban, based in South and North Waziristan, have begun assailing civilian and military targets, threatening that these will continue until the drone attacks cease. The Pakistani Taliban believes it likely that their government is implicated in planning and conducting the attacks is some way and thus view it as collaborating with the enemy. So in order to change the perception that its national sovereignty is being compromised, the government of Pakistan has requested the U.S. to transfer its drone technology to Pakistan instead.
American and Pakistani intelligence agencies are increasingly at odds over how to approach this thorny situation. Pakistan desires more intelligence collaboration with the Unites States, which in turn alleges that on those occasions where it shared intelligence with the Pakistan, it was leaked to the people being targeted.
At the end of the day, the issues are the lack of trust and clarity of intentions of the parties involved; the difficulties in distinguishing friend from foe. In the past, Pakistan has entered into peace agreements with the Taliban and other radical groups with alleged involvement in cross border activities. According to the terms of these agreements, the radicals will desist from attacking the Pakistan Army or civilian targets. These agreements, however, usually didn’t address the issue of cross border activities, so that in the eyes of the U.S. and the West, they provide the respite the radical elements need to gather strength and launch attacks against NATO and the coalition forces in Afghanistan. Thus, America and the West have the following questions:
- Why does Pakistan enter into agreements with these radicals?Why does the country fail to follow through with forceful actions that substantiate its claim that these extremists are their enemies as well?
- Could Pakistan in fact be using these militants as proxies, as India and Afghanistan claim?
- Which elements in Pakistan are sympathetic to radical groups? How can this be changed?
- What is the real nature of public opinion in Pakistan regarding these Islamic radicals and militants?
In attempting to answer these questions, Western observers stress what they perceive as Pakistan’s unwillingness to part with these radical groups, due to both past associations and perceived future strategic utility. They argue that the public and private faces of the Pakistan government are at odds with each other; what the government shares with Americans in private contradicts what it wants to convey to its public and to the extremist elements.
In contrast, Pakistan claims that the problem lies not in any lack of resolve on their country’s part, but in its capacity. There is also a fear of history repeating itself: when as a colonial power, Great Britain arrived on the Sub-Continent, it exploited the Sunni-Shiite Muslim divide in the region. If the British did not have the help of the progressive Nizams of Hyderabad, they would not have been able to defeat Tipu Sultan. Once Tipu was eliminated, the Moguls, weakened by Ahmad Shah Abdali’s relentless attacks from the West, were no match for the British. Other global powers besides Britain have been inclined to leave the region in a rush, once weakened by tussles of other major players in international power struggles, without making any serious attempt to arrange a transition. In short, Pakistan is doubtful about the intentions and stamina of western powers while dealing with problems of the region.
The drone attacks present a number of domestic scenarios for Pakistan.
- First, they could expose the dichotomy of the Pakistan’s official position and force a change in its makeup, particularly in the military.
- Second, they could trigger the rage of radical groups towards Pakistan’s military, which will almost certainly react by doing everything in its power to defend itself.
- Third, they might lead the Pakistani Taliban to switch its focus from Afghanistan to Pakistan. If Pakistani Taliban have to protect their own turf then there chances of supporting Afghan Taliban diminish substantially. Furthermore, this helps to divide the radical forces of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mullah Omar has recently asserted on all Taliban’s to focus on Afghanistan and wants Pakistani Taliban to stop attacks on the its military, since that distracts from the mission of getting foreign forces out of Afghanistan.
- Fourth, they might force the Pakistan’s public to question the motives and risk/reward calculus of the its Army and associated strategic planning circles, simultaneously weakening the credibility of the present civilian government and heightening the historic tensions between progressives and Islamic revivalists. According to some, stronger Pakistan has traditionally destabilized Afghanistan. By this logic, by weakening Pakistan perhaps Afghanistan can be stabilized.
- Fifth, they might reawaken Pakistan’s old anxieties regarding ethnic strife and civil war, as well fears of Pincer style aggression from India and Afghanistan.
But drone attacks have both regional and global ramifications as well. For Pakistan the fear is that drone attacks can provide precedence for India in how to deal with Kashmiri Jihadis. A prospect which is very much alive in the aftermath of Mumbai attacks. The unmanned drone attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan are also a signal to Iran, nervous because of the presence of American troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Furthermore, drone attacks provide a plausible pretext for countries like Israel to launch long distance attacks on adversaries, as it recently is alleged to have done in Sudan. It has been reported that a supply convoy intended for Hamas was targeted there. Realizing the utility of unmanned platforms in last year’s Georgia conflict, Russia recently concluded a $50 Million deal with Israel to purchase drones.
There is another consequence of the drone attacks in Pakistan, perhaps all the more dangerous for being less obvious. It is claimed, the attacks have succeeded in pushing militants away from the border and deeper into the settled and urban areas of Pakistan; as a result, these extremists will almost certainly come into contact with the Kashmiri Jihadis and Punjabi Taliban – if they haven’t already – resulting in a fusion of the radical and Islamic revivalist forces of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. Regarding India in particular, where Muslim discontent is at an all time high, this prospect is not as far-fetched as it sounds. After all, it should be remembered that adherents of the Taliban believe in the same Deobandi school of thought that originated in India and then spread elsewhere. This joining of forces could intensify Shitte-Sunni tensions in the Middle East and Central and Southern Asia, with Al-Qaeda as the mastermind. This is not a prospect that progressive forces of Pakistan or United Sates look forward to.
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