Pak-US tensions undermine fight against terror

“Relations are bad and will get worse and will take away from the war on terror,” warned a former security secretary of Fata. — File Photo

PESHAWAR: A day after drone-fired missiles killed at least 45 people in the Dattakhel area of North Waziristan Agency, tensions between the US and Pakistan once again threatened to overshadow the fight against militancy in the region, according to officials and analysts in the provincial capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

“Relations are bad and will get worse and will take away from the war on terror,” warned Brig (retd) Mehmood Shah, a former security secretary of Fata.

The CIA-run drone programme and the minutiae of ,Pak-US relations, are shrouded in secrecy, but analysts and officials were unanimous in their opinion about at least three matters.

One, Thursday’s drone strike killed many non-militant tribals, including khasadars, who had gathered to resolve a local dispute. Two, the strike was a deliberate and provocative message from the US to the Pakistan Army. Three, the domestic criticism of the army in the wake of the release of Raymond Davis has played some part in Gen Kayani’s condemnation of the drone strike.

The drone strikes in an open field in Nevi Adda Shega occurred when members of the Madakhel tribe had convened a jirga to decide a dispute over a chromite mine in the area. Khasadars (members of a lightly armed local police force) and some other local officials were also present at the site of the attack. Tariq Hayat, secretary law and order, Fata, confirmed the civilian and police casualties.

However, while many of those killed were local tribesmen and not necessarily militants, there is some uncertainty over the exact circumstances of the attack.

According to a senior analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect local sources, the drones had initially fired at a car carrying five militants very close to the jirga. Having missed the first time, the drones fired again, this time killing both the occupants of the car and many people on the ground.

A Fata official appeared to corroborate this version and mentioned “people passing by in the area” who may have been the actual target.

However, other analysts were dismissive. “Drones are so accurate that they can get people on motorcycles now. There is pinpoint accuracy. They hit what they intend to hit,” claimed a security analyst with some knowledge of the drone-strike programme.

While the exact circumstances of the drone strike may never be known, there is little uncertainty about the message it was intended to convey.

Coming on the heels of the release of US covert operative Raymond Davis, the drone strike is a sign of America’s continuing “unhappiness with the Pak command structure”, according to Khalid Aziz.

Brig Shah was also unequivocal: “This is an arrogant US response. Twelve missiles in one day is not routine. The message was clear and categorical: we will do what we want.”

While security officials have leaked suggestions to the media that the resolution of the Raymond Davis affair also involved some understanding on redrawing the contours of the Pak-US relationship, most analysts were sceptical.

“Look what (the Americans) did the day after (Davis’s release). If there was a deal, it was clearly a weak deal or possibly involved personal interests, not national interests”, claimed a security analyst who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the army-led security establishment.

If the American action was harsh, the Pakistan response in the form of a strong statement by Gen Kayani has been interpreted as equally worrying for the state of Pak-US relations.

“This is extreme messaging by both sides. If we become rigid, America will disengage. Conditions in Afghanistan could worsen, but Pakistan has financial and other constraints,” said Khalid Aziz, adding, “Who wins in that scenario?”

But a senior Fata official claimed, “We are not Djibouti or Algeria, we are a nuclear state, we are Pakistan. The Americans need to respect us.”

Rahimullah Yusufzai, a prominent expert on the region, was more circumspect: “Both sides need each other and both sides know it, so there won’t be a break. But there is no sincerity in the relationship, it is purely opportunistic. So things are bad and will be bad every step of the way.”

Indeed, part of the Pakistan Army’s response to Thursday’s drone strike has been attributed by analysts to domestic compulsions.

According to Mr Yusufzai, “Kayani had to react” to avoid local consequences. These included the possibility of retaliatory attacks against the army by angry Fata tribesmen and maintaining the morale of the security forces given that khasadars and other local officials had died in the drone strike.

Others, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, suggested the backlash from sections of the media and the public over the release of Raymond Davis had factored into the army’s calculations.

“The internet is full of stories about a payoff to Gen Kayani (for Davis’s release). The army was losing credibility,” claimed a security analyst who suggested the army’s furious response to the American drone strike is “one of those games”.

Another security expert said, “Gen Kayani must have thought through this statement. The Raymond Davis release embarrassed the army and it couldn’t afford to look weak twice in succession.”

On the streets of Peshawar, however, there was little sign yesterday that Raymond Davis, Thursday’s drone strike, American pressure or the state of US-Pak relations were of much concern to the public.

Outside the Madni Masjid in Namak Mandi, riot police, TV crews and a few curious onlookers gathered in anticipation of a protest by the JUI-F following Friday prayers.

At 3pm, a pot-bellied bearded man with a bullhorn in hand emerged from the mosque shouting anti-America slogans. He was followed by less than a hundred protesters, many of them children.

Similar protests planned by the PTI and Jamaat-i-Islami in other parts of Peshawar also fizzled.

Back at Namak Mandi, a shopkeeper gestured towards the mosque and shrugged, “They’ve taken dollars and now they are talking about protests.” Customers nodded their heads in agreement, going about their Friday afternoon business.

In Peshawar at least, the rhythms of everyday life were not to be disturbed by political storms and international spats.


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