Droning on

Little is clear about the US renewal of drone strikes in Pakistan—except that they won’t be the last.

Alejandro Garcia de la Garza
19 June 2014

Unending cycle: relatives await news after the Karachi attack. ppiimages / Demotix. All rights reserved.

After nearly six months, US drone strikes have resumed in Pakistan, with between thirteen and sixteen fresh fatalities reported. The unofficial moratorium had broken an intense, ten-year campaign, the last previous strike taking place on 25 December. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 386 drone strikes have taken place since 2004 and between 2,310 and 3,743 people have been killed—including hundreds of civilians and children—with many more injured.

Publicly, the Pakistani government usually denounces the strikes, including the latest, claiming a violation of its territorial integrity and sovereignty. But it is suggested that, in some cases, the government has worked with the US and approved or even requested certain operations.

The six-month pause followed international criticism of the lack of transparency of the Obama administration over targeted killings and Pakistani demands that the US cease these operations on its territory, linked to an opening of talks with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). But, despite the attempts to broker an end to hostilities and an absence of offensive US operations, attacks by non-state groups continued, followed by military retaliation including air strikes.

The peace talks have been largely unsuccessful and the defence minister, Khawaja Asif, frustrated with the lack of progress and continued violence—in particular, the attack on 8 June on Karachi airport—called for a full-scale military operation against the TTP in North Waziristan. The airport attack, which also involved members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), lasted for hours and left at least 39 people dead.

The drone strikes three days later were seen not only as a response to the Karachi assault and the fruitless talks but also as reflecting tensions between the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the military leadership.

Haqqani network

Pakistani security officials said two strikes took place. The first targeted a compound near Miram Shah in North Waziristan; seven hours later, six missiles were fired at a building and an explosives-filled truck in the vicinity. The strikes are believed to have killed members of the Haqqani network. This group, led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, has been responsible for several attacks against US and Afghan security personnel in Afghanistan but it is believed to operate out of North Waziristan. The Haqqani group was responsible for detaining the US sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, released earlier this month in exchange for several Taliban commanders detained in Guantanamo.

It has been reported that members of the IMU were killed in the first strike. That Uzbek fighters should be targeted raises further controversies: who becomes a target of drones, how do the strikes take effect and, particularly, how are they approved? One of the few things to have been rendered explicit in this murky area is that targets are purportedly confined to those deemed an imminent threat to the US. Yet this hardly applies to the Uzbek fighters or the hundreds of Yemenis killed in the same way.

Indeed, on top of the drone campaign in Yemen, targeting members of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), comes the request from Iraqi officials for drone assistance in the fight against ISIS. And, despite the criticism from human-rights groups and international organisations, and the official condemnation from Pakistan, the US has form in ignoring (or secretly working in collusion with) government to target non-state forces.

So, amid the disturbing lack of transparency surrounding the programme, it seems like the option of drone strikes will remain on the table. 

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