Continuing it’s highly controversial but indisputably successful covert drone operations in Pakistan’s tribal area, the US, in one of its deadliest drone strikes, killed 24 suspected terrorists and injured another 10 at the Gorwaik village of the Dattakhel area in the North Waziristan Agency (NWA) of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), on July 6, 2012.
Datta Khel is considered to be a stronghold of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a Taliban ‘commander’ accused of sending fighters across the border to fight NATO troops in Afghanistan. Unlike the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Hafiz Gul Bahadur has a secret deal with Islamabad not to attack Pakistani Security Forces (SFs) and, in lieu, has freedom to operate from Pakistan.
Earlier, on July 1, 2012, eight terrorists were killed in a US drone attack on a compound in the Kund Ghar area of the Shawal tehsil (revenue unit), 50 kilometres southwest of Miranshah, the NWA headquarters. The attack also killed cadres loyal to Gul Bahadur, and included some foreign militants belonging to the Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (TIM).
With Pakistan continuing to provide support and safe haven to a range of Islamist terrorist formations, including a number of factions operating against International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) troops in Afghanistan, the US opted for drone operations way back in 2004, with the first such attack launched on June 18, 2004, at Wana, the regional headquarters of the South Waziristan Agency (SWA). The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database has, thus far, recorded 244 such attacks, in which at least 2,303 persons have been killed (all data till July 15, 2012).
Crucially, a number of top terrorists have been killed in drone strikes, including:
June 4, 2012: Abu Yahya al-Libi, the ‘second-in-command’ of the al Qaeda, reportedly killed in Hisokhel, in the east of Miranshah. Though White House spokesman Jay Carney on June 6, 2012, stated that “our Government has been able to confirm al-Libi’s death,” two al Qaeda-linked websites, Ansar and Alfidaa, on June 10, 2012, claimed that Libi was alive. Another 14 terrorists were killed in the attack.
February 9, 2012: Badr Mansoor, a Pakistani citizen who served as al Qaeda's Pakistan chapter ‘commander’ and a key link to the Taliban and Pakistani jihadi groups, was killed near Miranshah.
October 13, 2011: Jan Baz Zadran, top aide to the Haqqani Network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, was killed in a US drone attack on a militant outpost on a hill in Zeba Mountain, close to the Afghan border in SWA.
September 11, 2011: Abu Hafs al Shahri, a senior al Qaeda leader who served as the ‘operations chief for Pakistan’, was killed in the Hisokhel village of NWA.
August 22, 2011: Atiyah Abd al Rahman, a senior al Qaeda leader who served as Osama bin Laden's chief of staff and a top ‘operational commander’, was killed in Mirkhunkhel area near Mir Ali in NWA.
June 11, 2011: Ilyas Kashmiri, the leader of al Qaeda's Lashkar al Zil and the ‘operational commander’ of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) was killed in a US drone strike in Wana Bazaar area of SWA. He was a member of al Qaeda's external operations council.
February 14, 2010: Abdul Haq al Turkistani, the "overall leader" of the East Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIP), was killed in the Mir Ali town of NWA.
September 14, 2009: Najmiddin Jalolov, the leader of the Jama'at al-Jihad al-Islami, a breakaway faction of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and affiliated with al Qaeda operations in Central Asia and Russia, was killed in the Mir Ali area of NWA.
August 27, 2009: Tahir Yuldashev, the founder of the IMU, was killed in the Kaniguram area in Laddha, SWA.
August 5, 2009: Baitullah Mehsud, the chief of the TTP, was killed in a drone attack on his father-in-law’s house in Zangara village of the Laddha sub-division, SWA.
January 1, 2009: Osama al Kini aka Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam, al Qaeda's operations chief for Pakistan, who was also wanted for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was killed in the Karikot area of Wana, SWA.
November 19, 2008: Abdullah Azzam al Saudi, a teacher and mentor of Osama bin Laden, who also liaised between al Qaeda and TTP, was killed in SWA.
October 31, 2008: Abu Jihad al Masri, the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group and the chief of al Qaeda's intelligence shura, was killed in Wana, SWA. Al Masri also directed al Qaeda's external operations in Egypt.
September 8, 2008: Abu Haris, the al Qaeda chief in Pakistan, died of injuries in a drone attack in Miranshah, NWA.
July 28, 2008: Abu Khabab al Masri, the chief of al Qaeda's weapons of mass destruction program and a ‘master bomb maker’, was killed in a compound in SWA near the Afghan border.
Evidently, the effectiveness of the drones is beyond question, particularly in view of the fact that Pakistani SFs have failed to eliminate any significant top leader of terrorist groups operating from their soil into the neighbourhood, and even as the Pakistani establishment continues to deny the presence of these various terrorist formations. Crucially, moreover, the recent killing of al-Libi has once again reconfirmed the fact that Pakistan’s tribal areas continue to serve as sanctuary for the top leadership of al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban. Indeed, John Brennan, the US Deputy National Security Advisor, referring to al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s presence in FATA, stated, on April 30, 2012, "We believe he (Zawahiri) is in that region of the world, as well as other al-Qaeda leaders that continue to borough into areas of... the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. We're not going to relent until they're brought to justice one way or the other."
Interestingly, Pakistan has resisted mounting US pressure to launch an offensive in NWA, arguing that its Forces are too overstretched in the fight against the local Taliban (TTP) to take on an enemy that poses no threat to Pakistan. On June 1, 2011, for instance, then-Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had stated, “We are not fond of any military action and we want to have an exit strategy”, adding further that the Government would “take action when its writ is challenged”. Evidently, the prevailing conditions, in this interpretation, do not constitute a ‘challenge’ to the Pakistan Government’s writ.
Despite the tremendous success of the drone strikes, these have come under severe criticism from both within and outside Pakistan. Pakistan has, of course, vehemently opposed the attacks, arguing that they are unlawful, against international law and a violation of sovereignty. On April 1, 2012, Gilani thus argued that US drone attacks violated Pakistani sovereignty and created a “negative impact”, giving rise to deep misgivings between the Pakistani people and the US.
Elements within the ‘international community’ have also criticized the drone campaigns on the grounds that they have claimed many innocent lives. According to a report compiled by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), published on February 6, 2012, 260 strikes by Predator and Reaper drones have been recorded since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, in which between 282 and 535 civilians, respectively, including over 60 children, had been ‘credibly reported’ killed. American officials claimed that the number cited by BIJ was “too high”, though they acknowledged that “at least several dozen civilians” had lost their lives “inadvertently” in strikes aimed at militant suspects. They questioned the accuracy of the higher claims, alleging that accounts might be concocted by militants or falsely confirmed by residents who feared extremist retaliation.
Nevertheless, on July 2, 2012, BIJ observed that fewer civilians had died in US drone strikes in Pakistan, so far, in 2012, than in any other comparable period in the last four years. It noted that between three and 24 civilians were reported killed by drones in Pakistan from January to June 2012. Reported civilian casualty rates have not been this low since the first half of 2008, when between 12 and 21 civilians reportedly died in attacks ordered by then US President George W. Bush. Civilian fatalities this year were also a marked decline against the 62 to 103 civilians reported killed by drone strikes in Pakistan in the first six months of 2011. According to the report, between 2,496 and 3,202 persons had been reported killed by drones in Pakistan since 2004. Among them were 482 to 832 civilians, 175 of them children. Significantly, President Obama, on January 30, 2012, had stated that US drone attacks in Pakistan had “not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.”
The impact of the drone attacks within Pakistan has, however, been politically devastating. A report by the Washington-based PEW Global Survey claimed that about 74 per cent of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy, up from 69 percent last year  and 64 percent three years ago. According to the report, Barack Obama is held in exceedingly low regard by Pakistanis, and civilian casualties in drone attacks are one of the major reasons for this.
The US, nevertheless, has justified the use of drones on grounds of necessity. Terming the drone attacks on Pakistani soil as ‘self defence’, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta on June 6, 2012, thus noted,
We have made it very clear to Pakistani leaders that we will continue to defend ourselves... This is about our sovereignty as well… The leadership of those that were involved in planning (the 9/11) attacks located (themselves) in Pakistan...
Further, on June 7, 2012, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implicitly defending Washington's use of drone strikes, said,
We will always maintain our right to use force against groups such as al Qaeda that have attacked us and still threaten us with imminent attack. In doing so, we will comply with the applicable law, including the laws of war, and go to extraordinary lengths to ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life.
Significantly, the July 6, 2012, drone strikes took place just two days after the first NATO truck entered Afghanistan through Pakistan after a break of more than seven months, reaffirming the US intent to continue with drone attacks, ignoring Pakistani objections and resentment over the issue. Indeed, discontinuation of the drone strikes was one of the major preconditions Pakistan had articulated for reopening the NATO supply routes. On July 3, 2012, Pakistan agreed to reopen its border to NATO supply convoys into Afghanistan after the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered an apology for the loss of life in NATO’s aerial attack on the Salala border check-post in FATA on November 26, 2011, which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s Counterterrorism Adviser, stressing that targeted drone strikes in other countries were legal, stated, on April 30, 2012, that “as a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defence.” US President Barack Obama, moreover, had ordered a ‘sharp increase’ in drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas in recent months, Bloomberg quoted two US officials as disclosing on June 9. The US officials were further quoted as saying that Obama’s decision to increase drone attacks reflected the “mounting US frustration with Pakistan over a growing list of disputes”.
The US has remained rightly adamant on its policy of continuing covert drone operations in terrorist safe havens on Pakistani soil, though its campaigns have come under severe challenge on grounds of the civilian fatalities inflicted. With greater emphasis on the credibility of intelligence flows and the precision of attacks, it should be possible to address the legitimate concerns in this regard, though Pakistan’s perverse support to terrorist formations operating in the neighbourhood from its soil will ensure that domestic opinion is constantly whipped up against the US operations.
(The writer Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)