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- Saturday, June 09, 2012 - From Print Edition

After a number of missile hits that killed largely unknown and overwhelmingly Pakistani militants in North Waziristan and South Waziristan over the past year, the US finally seems to have gotten a big catch by eliminating an important Al-Qaeda figure Abu Yahya al-Libi in a drone attack in North Waziristan on June 4.

The Americans believe he was presently the second-in-command to the new Al-Qaeda head Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, though there isn’t any firm evidence that he was holding this position. He was certainly an inspirational figure for Al-Qaeda members and sympathisers after having made a dramatic escape from the maximum security US prison at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan in 2005 along with four other Arab militants and devoted his life to propagating Al-Qaeda’s concept of jihad against the US, Israel and their allies through his writings and videotapes. However, his role in operational planning for the Al-Qaeda and Taliban attacks in recent years is being overplayed. Two other significant Al-Qaeda members killed over the past year were its earlier second-in-command Atiyah Abd al-Rahman and its chief of operations for Pakistan, Abu Hafs al-Shahri.

Senior Pakistani militants Ilyas Kashmiri and Badar Mansoor, leading their group of militants having strong links with Al-Qaeda, were also killed in US drone strikes in the last one year. Their deaths were a loss mostly to their own group made up of Pakistanis and, by association, to Al-Qaeda. Apart from these five known Al-Qaeda-linked militants, others killed in the drone attacks were obscure men associated with various Pakistani Taliban groups.

In an ideal situation, al-Libi’s death would have brought the governments and armies of Pakistan and the US closer as he was wanted by both after having aligned with the Pakistani Taliban, who have declared war on the two countries. In the prevailing circumstances though, al-Libi’s death could widen the gulf between Pakistan and the US as it would provide further justification to the latter to continue the drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas overriding Islamabad’s objections.

At a time when the US authorities were preparing to celebrate al-Libi’s elimination as a major success in the war against Al-Qaeda, Pakistan summoned the deputy US ambassador to the Foreign Ministry to hand him the protest note on the drone attacks in its territory. It noted that the drone strikes were unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Besides, al-Libi’s death would strengthen the argument that the most wanted Al-Qaeda figures were hiding in Pakistan despite the latter’s repeated denials about their presence on its soil.

This and other incidents in the recent past have contributed to the uncertainty characterising the US-Pakistan relationship. Upset with Pakistan for refusing to reopen the Nato overland supply routes shutdown six months ago, the US is doing everything within its means to undermine the government in Islamabad and the country’s armed forces by dramatically increasing the drone attacks and ridiculing Pakistani laws and concerns in the case of CIA informer Dr ShakeelAfridi. So wide is the gulf between the two supposed allies that the US considers Dr Afridi a hero for guiding the CIA to the doors of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad through his fake anti-polio vaccination campaign, while Pakistan got him convicted as a traitor.

Since the Nato Summit in Chicago on May 20-21, where President Asif Ali Zardari was invited at the eleventh hour to be humiliated instead of being welcomed, there have been nine missile strikes by the CIA-operated unmanned aerial vehicles in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), including seven in North Waziristan and two in the neighbouring South Waziristan. The drone strikes in North Waziristan have continued unabated in recent years because the US is angry that Pakistan has refused to launch any major military operation there to target the local and foreign militants, particularly the Haqqani network.

Perhaps no other place in the world has been hit by so many missiles, appropriately named Hellfire, fired by the drones as North Waziristan. Mostly Pakistani militants linked to the non-Taliban group of Hafiz Gul Bahadur or the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) rather than Al-Qaeda members or Afghan Taliban affiliated to the Haqqani network have been killed in these attacks. As the foreign militants instead of the Pakistanis are more actively involved in the fight against the US and its allies in Afghanistan and elsewhere, it is obvious that the Americans aren’t really harming their real enemies linked to Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban through their highly regarded drone programme.

By attacking targets after a long gap in South Waziristan in its recent drone strikes, the US is sending a strong message to Pakistan that it doesn’t care whether those being hit are militants linked to the TTP, which is Islamabad’s principal foe, or its friendly non-Taliban group led by Maulvi Nazeer. In fact, both recent drone attacks in South Waziristan in which 12 people were killed targeted men affiliated with the Maulvi Nazeer group with which the Pakistani government entered into a peace accord in 2007.

The peace agreement, though imperfect, is holding as it enjoys support of the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe inhabiting Wana and Shakai and has brought relative peace to these areas. In a recent drone attack in South Waziristan, militants and commoners gathered to mourn the death of a militant who was killed in a previous missile strike were attacked. It was another instance of the US not even sparing a solemn occasion of mourning where condolences were being offered for the dead as it doesn’t want to forego an opportunity when it could get as many militants as possible in one go.

The same principle was applied while attacking a mosque, as was the case recently in Hassukhel village near Mir Ali town inNorth Waziristan when 10 people offering early morning prayers were killed, or in targeted missile strikes on funerals and jirgas. In another recent case, rescuers too were attacked as the drones struck the second time after 20 minutes, a tactic last seen in the summer of 2011 and not different from the militants’ strategy of exploding remote-controlled bombs after ensuring that policemen and others have gathered at the spot of the first bomb explosion. It is such tactics that make the ongoing battle brutal as the militants also justify attacks on soft targets in which often non-combatants are killed and wounded.

Understandably, Pakistan’s reaction to the stepped-up drone strikes has become louder in line with the intensity and frequency of the US campaign. After the first attack in 35 days on May 5 in which 10 people, including possibly civilians, were killed, Pakistan publicly protested the violation of its borders and termed the strike “illegal” and “totally counter-productive.”

The US was least bothered by the protests and its civil and military officials continued to defend the drone strikes as effective and the best weapon against the militants. The US drone programme was always an open secret, but all pretences were set aside once President Barack Obama owned the attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and the American officials rather arrogantly started claiming that these were legal under international law and weren’t causing any civilian casualties. It was due to his decision to triple the number of US combat troops in Afghanistan and order a big increase in the drone strikes in Pakistan that Obama earned the reputation of a tough president who had sanctioned a ‘kill list’ and was ready to shed blood to counter criticism from his Republican opponents that he was soft on security issues.

Details also emerged in the US media that Obama was fully aware of the civilian deaths in the drone strikes in Pakistan since the start of his presidency and had gone ahead to authorise the widening of the definition of the term ‘combatant’ to include all adult males of military-age killed in these strikes. Of the almost 330 drone hits in Pakistan since 2004, around 278 were ordered by Obama and the figure would go up in the run-up to the US presidential election. As long as Obama is around, it seems US-Pakistan relations may be temporarily repaired if ongoing efforts bear fruit, but would continue to suffer from deep distrust.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahimyusuf [email protected]