US disowns two drone strikes in Waziristan
06 March, 2013
ISLAMABAD: The New York Times was taking heat from the Pakistani military on Tuesday after reporting that two drone airstrikes carried out in early February were not the work of the United States, and may have been carried out by Pakistan army instead.
In a statement issued by the ISPR, the Pakistan military said The New York Times report is a 'distortion of the facts'. It denied carrying out any operation, including airstrikes, on the dates described in the story. The report says that the two strikes, which took place on Feb 6 in North Waziristan and Feb 8 in South Waziristan, went unremarked on largely because they appeared so run of the mill.
Small Pakistani news agencies and international television networks, including NBC and Al Jazeera, carried common-sounding details: accounts of multiple American drones hovering overhead, estimates of the number of missiles fired, accounts of the rescue effort by local civilians and quotes from Pakistani military officials in the tribal belt or nearby Peshawar.
"The compound was completely destroyed. The militants had surrounded the area after the attack," one official told AFP after the second explosion, in Babar Ghar, near Ladha, in South Waziristan.
Some reports, attributed to Pakistani officials, said the dead included two Qaeda commanders, identified as Abu Majid al-Iraqi and Sheikh Abu Waqas. Other reports said four Uzbek militants had died.
"The Pakistan Air Force does not generally undertake stand-alone strikes such as these because it is not equipped with the appropriate strike weapons," a Pakistani military source said. In Islamabad, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry lodged an official protest with the American Embassy.
The American narrative of those strikes is very different, according to the report.
Two senior United States officials said there had been no American involvement in the attacks. A third official said the CIA had not paid the reports much attention because no American forces had been involved. But that official said American intelligence pointed to the PAF as having conducted the first strike, probably as part of a military operation against Pakistani Taliban in the neighboring Orakzai tribal agency.
The second attack was more mysterious. "It could have been the Pakistani military," the official said. "It could have been the Taliban fighting among themselves. Or it could have been simply bad reporting."
What exactly took place in those remote tribal villages, far from outside scrutiny, is unclear. But the Americans' best guess is that one or possibly both of the strikes were carried out by the Pakistani military and falsely attributed to the CIA to avoid criticism from the Pakistani public, the report says. If the American version is true, it is a striking irony: In the early years of the drone campaign, the Pakistani Army falsely claimed responsibility for American drone strikes in an attempt to mask CIA activities on its soil. Now, the Americans suggest, the Pakistani military may be using the same program to disguise its own operations.
Few issues antagonise the relationship between Pakistan and the United States as much as the drone program does - or encapsulate the often contradictory, smoke-and-mirrors nature of the military-to-military relationship.
In public, both Pakistani military and government officials routinely and vehemently condemn the strikes. But in private, a handful of senior Pakistani generals are 'read into' the program, according to American officials.
The United States gives the Pakistani military 30 minutes' advance notice of drones strikes in South Waziristan. However, it gives no notice in North Waziristan, considered a bigger hub of Taliban and Qaeda, and also a major base for the Haqqani Network, which carries out attacks in Afghanistan, one senior American official told the NYT.
If American claims are correct, the United States has not conducted a drone strike in Pakistan since Jan 10, marking the longest pause of the campaign since November 2011, when the CIA stopped strikes for 55 days after American warplanes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a disputed border clash, according to the report.
Some analysts believe the lull may be connected to Mr Brennan's nomination, pointing to a similar slowdown in Yemen, the other major theater of American drone operation. Others point to more prosaic explanations, like intelligence delays or bad weather. "The whole thing seems to be on pause at the moment," said Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a watchdog group that tallies the drone strikes, mostly using news reports.
If one thing is clear about the drones, it is that all sides - Pakistanis, Americans and the Taliban - have an interest in manipulating reports about their impact.
Woods said he would take American claims of noninvolvement in the February attacks 'with a pinch of salt', citing the details about the Qaeda deaths as potential evidence of CIA involvement.
But, Woods added, his group had earmarked reports of about a dozen drone strikes as suspicious in recent years, and had marked them as such on its website.