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Would US drones target Quetta?

24 November, 2010

By S M Hali


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According to The Washington Post (WP), the US has renewed pressure on Pakistan to expand the areas inside the country where CIA drones can operate. Thus, the pressure was focused on including the area surrounding Quetta, where it believes the Afghan Taliban leadership is based. The US also sought to expand the area of operation in the tribal areas where 101 drone attacks had taken place this year. The paper also “revealed” that Pakistan has rejected the request, but agreed to more modest measures, including an expanded CIA presence in Quetta, where CIA-ISI teams have been formed to locate and capture senior members of the Taliban, adding that the disagreement over the scope of the drone programme underscores broader tensions between the two allies.

Moreover, it borders on the comical that a matter as sensitive as extending drone attacks to Quetta is being discussed through the media. Neither has the diplomatic channel been used, nor is the Pakistani government taking Parliament into confidence before rejecting the drone attacks or agreeing to an expanded role for the CIA in Balochistan. Anyway, US officials have confirmed the “request for expanded drone flights, citing concern that Quetta functions not only as a sanctuary for the Taliban leaders, but also as a base for sending money, recruits and explosives to the Taliban forces inside Afghanistan.” However, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson Abdul Basit has categorically stated: “Pakistan has reservations over drone strikes…it would never allow any expansion in the campaign of drone strikes by the US on its territory.” He stressed that the attacks were producing a “drone-hardened generation” and has asked the US to revisit its drone attack policy and stop carrying out strikes in our tribal areas.

On the other hand, WP maliciously opines: “US officials have long suspected there are other reasons for Islamabad`s aversion, including concern that the drones might be used to conduct surveillance of Pakistani nuclear weapons facilities in Balochistan.” Commenting on the WP story, a diplomatic source said that during the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue last month, the Americans had indicated that they would like to expand the drone attacks to Quetta and to some new regions in FATA, but did not formally raise the issue.

Now the whole issue is being dragged through the media, which is certainly not in the best of diplomatic practices. Islamabad and Washington do not see eye to eye on the matter. While Washington insists that Balochistan is the headquarters of the so-called Quetta Shura, Islamabad denies the existence of any organisation, let alone operating from there. It is not comprehensible, how the NATO, ISAF and General Petraeus et al, have been unable to control the resistance movement by the Taliban in Aafghanistan, where the international forces are not only in high numbers, but are also equipped with a massive air power, have the facility of satellite imagery and Aerial Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance systems, which are the ultimate real time aid to aerial intelligence.

Despite all this, Eric Margolis has recently commented: “Amazing as it sounds, NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance, may be losing the only war the 61-year old pact ever fought. All its soldiers, heavy bombers, tanks, helicopter gunships, armies of mercenaries, and electronic gear are being beaten by a bunch of lightly-armed Afghan farmers and mountain tribesmen.”

Perhaps, now the US/NATO want to shift the blame for their failures on Pakistan. Hence, the urgency to “do more”, the pressure on Pakistan to commence operation in North Waziristan and permit the US to expand the drone operations. The drones have already wreaked havoc in the country, killing nearly 2,000 innocent civilians, while the deaths of just about 30 suspected Al-Qaeda operatives have been claimed. Such a high collateral damage vis-à-vis target achievement is totally unacceptable.

Moreover, Quetta is highly urbanised and the collateral damage will be higher in case it is attacked. For a nation already reeling under the negative after-effects of the drone attacks, expanding the operation would be totally counterproductive and inflame the anti-Americanism prevalent in Pakistan. Even the enhanced cooperation with CIA is not being looked upon positively, since Pakistan’s own security agencies are fully capable of tackling the problem and do not need the cousins from Langley looking over their shoulders. NATO has already extended the exit date from Afghanistan to 2014, which has been rejected by the Taliban.

Ambassador Mark Sedwill, speaking at a media briefing after the NATO Summit, made a rare confession that talks with the Haqqani network - whom he described as the most irreconcilable of the Afghan warring factions - were not going well. Under the circumstances, US-led allies can ill afford to fish in troubled waters assuming that extending drone operations to Quetta will be fruitful. They must revisit their strategy, rather than alienate their only ally in the region - Pakistan.

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