At a time when the American CIA’s targeted killing programme in the tribal areas of Pakistan was winding down, some recent developments seem to have made the US resume its deadly drone strikes after an unprecedented break of six months.
These developments include the June 5 Islamabad High Court order to lodge a murder case against ex-CIA station chief, Jonathan Banks, the June 6 Karachi Airport attack by the Taliban and the subsequent collapse of the Govt-TTP talks, the rising terrorist activities of the Haqqani network across the border in Afghanistan and the May 31 release of a US soldier who was reportedly being kept in the Waziristan tribal belt by the Haqqanis.
Even though the Americans had not formally abandoned their drone programme, no strike had taken place in Pakistan’s tribal belt bordering Afghanistan after December 25, 2013, as the Sharif government had been holding peace talks with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which jointly claimed responsibility for the Karachi Airport attack along with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
In fact, the Sharif government had requested the Obama administration to stop the drone strikes in Pakistan to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban. Interestingly, halting drone attacks had been a key demand of the TTP to initiate peace talks given the fact that most of the Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders had been killed in these strikes, including the TTP’s founding ameer Baitullah Mehsud and his successor Hakeemullah Mehsud, the IMU’s founding chief Tahir Yuldashev and his successor, Abu Usman Adil, and at least six chief operational commander of al-Qaeda.
While resuming its drone campaign in Pakistan, the CIA carried out two strikes near Miramshah in North Waziristan on June 11 that killed a Haqqani network commander Haji Gul and two Afghan Taliban military commanders Mufti Sufian and Abu Bakar.
According to the American media claims, the drone strikes in Dandi Darpakhel, which headquarters the TTP as well as the Haqqani Network, targeted some explosive laden vehicles which were to be used in a terrorist mission across the border in Afghanistan.
They added that the lethal Afghan jehadi group was preparing a squad and about to leave when it was attacked by the drones. Some other commanders killed in the strike have been identified as Commander Yasin Gardezi, Abdullah Khan, Commander Jamil, Commander Asadullah and their driver, Noor Khan. The local tribesmen have already confirmed that the compound targeted by the CIA belonged to members of the Afghan Taliban network.
Therefore, the American media reports belie some earlier reports by the Pakistani media claiming that two drone attacks were directed against the network of the IMU and that these attacks had killed 10 Uzbek and Punjabi Taliban commanders in Tabbi Toolkhel and Darga Mandi areas of North Waziristan.
There were also reports in the media that the Americans had been given “express approval” by Pakistan for these latest strikes.
However, the Foreign Office spokesman in Islamabad has condemned these attacks and reiterated the official stance that the strikes were “a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
According to well-informed diplomatic circles in Islamabad, the prime endeavour behind breaking the six-month-long pause in drone hits in Pakistan was to target the Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban leaders who were plotting to launch cross border attacks in Afghanistan.
This meant they posed an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States as an American Department of Justice white-paper required for targeting with drones. Significantly, the CIA resumed its lethal drone attacks in Pakistan hardly two weeks after an American US soldier was freed following a secret prisoner-exchange deal between the White House and the Taliban.
US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was released on May 31 in exchange for five Afghan prisoners held at the notorious US-run prison at Guantanamo Bay following a secret deal between the Obama administration and the Taliban.
Bergdahl was believed to be taken into the Waziristan belt of Pakistan by the Haqqani Netowrk after being arrested from a US Army outpost in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. During secret parleys for his release, the Taliban had warned Washington that the CIA’s drone attacks had come close to killing Bergdahl on several occasions.
And it is believed that the Taliban’s warning might have played a role in the six-month pause in drone strikes since December 25, 2013.
Interestingly, Bergdahl’s captor and a central commander of the Haqqani Network Mullah Sangeen Zadran had also been killed in a US drone attack in North Waziristan on September 5, 2013, which gives credence to the Taliban’s claim.
Another important factor which seems to have contributed towards the resumption of the drone strikes is believed to be the June 5 order by Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court, directing the Secretariat Police Station, Islamabad, to register a murder case against former CIA station chief in Islamabad Jonathan Banks and former CIA General Counsel John A Rizzo in the matter pertaining to Kareem Khan, a resident of North Waziristan, whose teenage son Zahinullah and brother Asif Iqbal had died in a CIA-sponsored drone strike in 2009. Kareem Khan, a native of Machi Khel, Mir Ali, had filed an application for FIR with the Secretariat Police Station in 2010 which had refused to lodge the FIR, forcing Kareem to approach the Islamabad High Court which finally entertained his petition. However, the murder case has not yet been registered by the Islamabad police.
Before the June 11 twin drone attacks in North Waziristan, the general impression was that the CIA’s targeted killing programme in Pakistan, which was once the mainstay of President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism effort, is finally winding down.
The six-month long pause in drone attacks was by far the longest break since President Bush had ordered a stepped-up campaign of targeted drone strikes in Pakistan in 2008. There have been 354 drone strikes in Pakistan since the lethal programme was launched in June 2004. Well-informed diplomatic circles in Islamabad say the drone operations in Pakistan would continue even after withdrawal of the US-led troops from Afghanistan.