Pakistan Demands End to Drone Strikes

Pakistan’s request to reduce American operations in the country highlights the contradictions in Washington’s objectives there.

Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani talks with Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an aerial tour of northern Pakistan, July 24, 2010
Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani talks with Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an aerial tour of northern Pakistan, July 24, 2010 (Defense Department/Chad J. McNeeley/)

Pakistan has demanded that the United States seize drone strikes against Islamic militants operating along the Afghan border and reduce the number of intelligence and Special Operations personnel working in the country.

The request highlights the unpopularity of American counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan. One Pakistani official told The New York Times that drone operations had become the sole preserve of the United States with Americans no longer sharing information on how they were choosing targets.

Given the inability of Pakistani armed forces to root out the Taliban and terrorist presence from their mountainous frontier, the United States have dramatically increased the number of drone attacks since December of last year and expanded them into the province of North Waziristan and the tribal area west of Peshawar. The Pakistanis have been reluctant to deploy force in those areas, arguing that they should first consolidate gains in South Waziristan and Swat before opening another front against the insurgents.

As American military officials see it however, the mere existence of Taliban sanctuaries across the border is hampering progress in Afghanistan, making it difficult for American and ISAF forces to consolidate their own gains and allow Afghan civilian authorities to administrate territories effectively once the Taliban have been ousted.

Reportedly, the reduced American involvement was requested personally by the chief of the Pakistani military, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, formerly the director of the country’s intelligence service. He is supposed to believe that the real aim of American military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to denuclearize the latter.

America’s strategy in South Asia is in fact a balancing act with Pakistan on the one hand, India on the other and Afghanistan caught in the middle. India’s objectives in Afghanistan are perfectly aligned with those of the United States — to defeat the Taliban and support the elected Afghan government. Islamabad has always maintained that it has a right to see a pro-Pakistani administration in Afghanistan however and continues to consider the country a strategic comfort zone in the case of a war with India.

After the Taliban were removed from power, Fareed Zakaria noted that the “cuisine, movies and money that flowed into the country were, naturally, Indian.” India is the world’s fifth financial contributor to the reconstruction of Afghanistan but Pakistan has actually committed troops to fight the insurgency within its own borders.

After the September 11 attacks, President Pervez Musharraf provided more support for the American war effort in Afghanistan than any other ally. As Michael Scheuer wrote at The Diplomat last summer, Musharraf, a career military officer, “surely thought American political leaders and generals would react as he and his peers would have reacted; that is, by destroying the attackers.”

Musharraf allowed the United States to gather intelligence on his soil and execute military strikes against suspected Taliban strongholds in Pakistan. “He helped destroy the Taliban regime,” according to Scheuer, “even though Islamabad couldn’t have had an Afghan regime more compatible with Pakistan’s national interests.”

The operation of what is largely a Punjabi army in predominantly Pashtun border provinces has pushed Pakistan onto the brink of civil war. The army’s offensives in the region killed thousands of soldiers and displaced nearly half a million people. Until two years ago, the battle was confined to the tribal areas but since 2008, it has spread into Pakistan proper with bombings and assassinations taking place in major cities including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.

With the Americans preparing to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014 — “come hell or high water,” according to Vice President Joe Biden — Pakistan can no longer afford to do their bidding but must prepare for the likelihood of a Taliban resurgence and possibly the emergence of an autonomous “Pashtunistan” occupying the border region in the near future.

Scheuer predicted that Pakistan’s intelligence service would try to mend fences with Pashtuns on both sides of the border and compel them to undermine Hamid Karzai and his government in an effort to hurry NATO’s defeat and help the Islamists reclaim power in Kabul. “This is the only long-term result that meets Pakistan’s national-security needs.”

The United States may endorse an intensified Indian presence in Afghanistan, which makes sense from both a regional and an international perspective, except as General Stanley McChrystal, then commander of Western combat forces in Afghanistan, warned in September 2009, it could well “exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.” Countermeasures being support for the Taliban and increased terrorist activity in India.