Dynamics of drones

By Brig Asif Haroon Raja 

In the wake of increased criticism over employment of drones from several quarters, Obama in his speech at National Defence University while discussing various issues at stake, spoke of drone program. Acknowledging that drones kill civilians, he stated that he intended to transfer responsibility of drone program from CIA to Pentagon which will be monitored by the State Department. Who so ever may control drones, the final authority which authorizes use of drone against an intended target is President Obama. He signs the death warrant and only then CIA executes it.

The US can act in self-defence if its homeland is attacked or there is an imminent danger of an attack on any of its military bases established in allied countries. In case of Afghanistan, notwithstanding that the US invasion was authorized by the UN and backed by the world, but once the Taliban regime was ousted and al-Qaeda pushed out of Afghanistan, there was no earthly reason for the US military and its allies to prolong their stay and that too for over 12 years and during this period keep using brutal force against the resistance forces and in the process killing the civilians as well. The US lost the moral ground when it failed to achieve any of the stated objectives of freedom, democracy, progress and prosperity.

The US objects to extra judicial killings of terrorists, but feels no compunction in targeted killings of unarmed civilians. Killing of civilians in Afghanistan and militants and civilians in FATA by drones who have no connection with 9/11 are also illegal acts and amounts to extra judicial killings. While the US may justify its combat actions in Afghanistan where the NATO is fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda, it has no justification to strike FATA with drones where Pak Army has deployed 147000 troops and is actively engaged in counter terrorism since 2002. Unlike in Afghanistan where the Afghan Taliban have a definite military edge over ISAF and ANA, and have forced foreign troops to withdraw, in Pakistan the Army has an edge over TTP and is in full control over restive areas. It has not taken up a rearward posture as in case of NATO troops.

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CIA could justify its drone war had Pakistan requested it to use the weapon in support of its war against terrorists. Gen Musharraf authorized limited use of drones as well as use of Shamsi airbase, while Zardari government publicly denounced drones, but allowed the US to continue striking targets in FATA. Shamsi base was closed in end November 2011 after Salala incident. As such, employment of drones by CIA from 2004 till March 2013 could be justified. Ever since PML-N government has taken over power, it has been repeatedly urging the US to halt drone strikes, being counter productive. There is therefore no reason for CIA to continue hitting targets in FATA. On 21 November, drones struck a seminary in Hangu in settled area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which prompted Imran Khan and his party activists to stage sit-ins and block NATO supply route through Torkham.

Agreed that drones have struck some high profile al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but drones have utterly failed to smother or even curb terrorism. Instead, each drone strike fuels terrorism and intensifies recruitment of militants. Drones are employed not to curb terrorism but to pressurize Pakistan to launch a major operation in North Waziristan (NW), which the US military thinks is a safe haven of anti-US militants led by Haqqani network (HN). Constant pressure was exerted on Pakistan from January 2010 onwards to launch an operation in NW, since the US shortsightedly considers it the root cause of its failures in Afghanistan. NW is one small opening along the 1400 miles long Pak-Afghan borders. Two to three crossing sites can be easily plugged if NATO so desires.

When Gen McChrystal decided to pull-back all the outposts deployed along the border in eastern and southern Afghanistan after military debacles in Helmand and in Nuristan in 2009 where NATO troops suffered heavy casualties at the hands of Taliban and confined the troops to military bases, the initiative slipped into the hands of Taliban. Thereon, ISAF’s entire dependence shifted to airpower including drones and avoidance of boots on ground to avert casualties. Defensive strategy has further shot up battle casualties because of IEDs, as well as suicide rate, stress disorder cases and in-house attacks. Neither anyone on its side has been held accountable or told to do more, nor any corrective action taken.

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NATO Commanders feel embarrassed to see the progress achieved by Pak military with meager resources. Pakistan Army’s performance is far better than the combined military strength of 43 countries laden with abundance of resources. Not knowing how to confront multiple challenges and how to cover up its failings, in sheer frustration and impotent rage CIA stepped up drone attacks in Waziristan and held Pakistan responsible for its failures. Series of allegations have been leveled against Pak Army and ISI.

To say that Hakeemullah Mehsud was a marked man owing to his involvement in attack on CIA camp Chapman in Khost on December 30, 2009 may not be altogether correct. A photo flashed by a TV channel in which Hakeemullah is seen sitting with Jordanian Humam Khalil Abu-Malal al Balawi, the one who had carried out the fatal suicide attack, was advocated as a proof of Hakeemullah’s connection. The TTP and HN had both claimed responsibility of the Khost incident. In my view, HN and not TTP could have executed the venture since the former holds sway over Khost, and neighboring provinces right up to Kabul. Balawi was initially cultivated by al-Qaeda but was later enrolled by Jordan intelligence to work as double agent and was sent to FATA in March 2009 to provide details of al-Qaeda’s activities. In June that year CIA took charge of Balawi and he thus became a triple agent. Reportedly, he also got associated with Afghan National Directorate of Intelligence (NDS).

Balawi conveyed to the CIA Forward Operating Base in Khost, which also controls drone war, that he had gathered the location of wanted Ayman al-Zawahiri. Excited by the news, he was asked to come and was escorted by Arghawan, an Afghan employed in NDS, where he was warmly welcomed. Once he was inside, he blew himself up killing five CIA officers including Camp chief and two US contractors and injured six. This was the biggest loss suffered by CIA after the loss it had suffered in Beirut in 1983 where eight CIA officers died at the hands of Hezbollah bomber. CIA took revenge of the incident by carrying out drone attacks in NW almost daily but focus of strike remained on HN and not on TTP. Hakeemullah became a marked man once he got inclined to peace talks and hence was killed on November 1, 2013.

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Likewise, Baitullah Mehsud was droned to death on August 5, 2009 when he started to drift from the path charted by CIA, RAW and NDS. He claimed responsibility for a terror attack in a small town near New York in April 2009 and vowed to continue attacking US targets in future as well.  He didn’t unleash his hordes of suicide bombers when Swat was under attack in May 2009. He was targeted by a drone in SW in June that year but he survived but was finally killed two months later.

Pakistan has been seeking drone technology from USA for quite some time so that it could take on the militants, but its request was turned down. The request was made to prevent CIA from striking targets in FATA, which amounts to violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and human rights. Perforce, Pakistan had had to undertake indigenous route. Considering the heavy losses by civilians and security forces at the hands of foreign backed TTP militants, the Army may be compelled by circumstances to opt for drone as a choice weapon. Recent induction of unarmed drones in the armories of Army and PAF is a force multiplier and will help a great deal in acquiring timely and precise intelligence in the ongoing internal war as well as during war with adversaries. Soon the indigenously manufactured armed drones would also become part of Army and PAF arsenals. Two types of unmanned drones would enable the two services to locate and destroy terrorist hideouts in far flung inaccessible areas and in striking wanted terrorists without incurring human casualties to their soldiers.

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