Recent weeks have witnessed a sharp increase in the use of unmanned aircraft systems, also known as drones, in hunting down Al Qaeda terrorists in the North Waziristan area of Pakistan. While drones have been used continuously for years in that region, the sudden escalation in September has fuelled unrest and resentment, both among terrorists and the rulers, in that country. How should these developments be understood?
International troops in Afghanistan are dependent on vital supplies that are routed from Karachi all the way to Kabul. This is not lost on the Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan. Almost on cue, supply trucks were burnt in Quetta and near Islamabad after drone attacks were stepped up. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks. Another recent incident, that of a coalition attack helicopter crossing the border from the Afghan side and attacking a checkpoint in Pakistan, led to the closure of the main border transit point between the two countries at Torkham in the Khyber agency. This was meant to convey Islamabad’s anger to the US.
All this betrays a sense of desperation on the part of the US. While the July 2011 deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan is now only talked about in muted tones, it is clear that some drawdown in the number of troops will take place from that date. This will be mostly due to domestic political compulsions in the US. But the Barack Obama administration wants to eliminate as much of terrorist infrastructure in that part of the world as is politically and physically feasible.
In this task, the Pakistan army is not helping the US. The devastating floods there are now being used as an excuse for not sending troops to North Waziristan. The reason for that is clear: Islamabad is protecting its Afghan proxies, the Haqqani network. The phenomenal rise in the number of drone attacks should be seen in this light.
The US is aware of the Pakistan army’s unwillingness to carry out this task. There is also a clear recognition now that Islamabad is more of a problem and less of a partner in solving the Afghan problem. All this has led to speculation on the possibility of US-led ground attacks in Pakistan. Were it not for major problems the US is facing on other fronts, its economy being one, the chances of “hot pursuit” by North American Treaty Organization troops across the Durand Line would have been real. But such are the limitations of American staying power in South Asia that Pakistan’s “sovereignty” is in no danger from this count, for the moment, notwithstanding that it menaces its peace-loving neighbours.
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