Pakistan, U.S. appear once again to be cooperating on drone strikes

The third generation Global Hawk drone can fly 11 miles high and 32 hours without refueling while gathering intelligence and ground images for the Air Force. Photo taken during its delivery to Edwards AFB Nov 16, 2007.
(Courtesy of Northrop Grumman Corp. /Bobbi Zapka)
The third generation Global Hawk drone can fly 11 miles high and 32 hours without refueling while gathering intelligence and ground images for the Air Force. Photo taken during its delivery to Edwards AFB Nov 16, 2007. (Courtesy of Northrop Grumman Corp. /Bobbi Zapka) Courtesy of Northrop Grumman Corp.

A series of CIA drone strikes launched last week against Taliban insurgents in Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas provide the clearest demonstration yet that the U.S. intelligence agency and Pakistani security forces are once again cooperating on defeating the insurgents.

The drone strikes – nine in all, launched daily with a day off on Friday – targeted Taliban fighters as they retreated from the country’s advancing military, which has launched an offensive in the North Waziristan tribal area. Pakistani authorities have billed the campaign as the decisive battle of a seven-year war against Pakistan Taliban insurgents.

The pattern of the attacks fits the description of American acquiescence to a behind-the-scenes request for help from the Pakistani military, but nobody in Islamabad or Washington is saying so. The U.S. government rarely comments on drone strikes as a matter of policy, and Pakistan’s only acknowledgment of the strikes has been to dust off an aging diplomatic draft feigning protest at unauthorized incursions into its airspace.

The Pakistani news media made no mention of the strikes until Monday, a day after the last of the recent attacks, when Dawn, the country’s top English daily newspaper, drew attention what it said was minimally Pakistan’s “tacit acceptance” of the U.S. airstrikes.

“Relative silence can be interpreted as, at the very least, tacit acceptance and, possibly, active cooperation between the countries. From the general location of the strikes . . . it would appear active cooperation is taking place – for surely neither the U.S. nor Pakistan could want an errant U.S.-fired missile hitting a Pakistani military target,” Dawn said in an editorial.

That comment alluded to the November 2011 clash between U.S. and Pakistani forces positioned on either side of the border with Afghanistan in which 24 Pakistani troops died. Pakistan responded by suspending cooperation with U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, including the closure of two supply routes running through its territory.

Relations have slowly improved since, because U.S. officials have adopted a more politically sensitive approach in dealings with their Pakistani counterparts, who are deeply averse to public criticism.

The sticking point was the U.S. demand, since 2009, that Pakistan launch a military offensive in North Waziristan. After successful operations in other tribal areas, it had become the last safe haven in Pakistan for al Qaeda fugitives plotting attacks on Western soil, and a home away from home for the Haqqani network, an Afghan militant faction notorious for audacious attacks on government and NATO installations in Afghanistan.

Occasional drone strikes resumed in June, shortly before Pakistani forces launched the current offensive, but a pattern suggesting active cooperation did not emerge until last week.

Each of the nine drone strikes launched between Oct. 5 and Saturday targeted militants fighting the Pakistani military, rather than anybody the U.S. would consider a high-value terrorist target. And the drones operated in airspace in frequent use by Pakistani warplanes and helicopter gunships.

None of the four drone strikes launched against militants in the Dattakhel area of North Waziristan, for example, targeted the dominant local faction, which is led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a key Haqqani network ally and, presumably, someone the United States would want to eliminate.

The Pakistani military has said its operation in North Waziristan would not discriminate between cooperative and combative militant factions, including Bahadur’s, and it has since claimed to have secured Dattakhel, except for insurgent bases located in inaccessible terrain that have been softened with both American and Pakistani air power.

A blanket ban imposed by the military on any news coverage beyond official statements and leaked intelligence assessments of drone strike casualties has made independent verification of events very difficult.

However, Pakistani researchers still able to access their information sources in locked-down North Waziristan said ground fighting in Dattakhel has been minimal, and no reports have emerged of any clashes between the Pakistani military and Bahadur’s faction. They spoke to McClatchy on condition of anonymity, citing the ban.

A retired ranking Afghan Taliban commander based in Islamabad, who has maintained contacts with various militant factions, said the relative peace in Dattakhel had made it a magnet for fleeing militant insurgents, following the Pakistani military’s capture of their former strongholds in the Miramshah and Mir Ali areas of North Waziristan. That migration prompted Pakistan’s request for U.S. drone strikes, said the former militant, who identified himself by the militant nom de guerre “Okasha,” saying disclosure of his identity could prompt his arrest by Pakistani authorities or violent militant reprisals.

He said the precise nature of the airstrikes, including those launched from CIA drones, had allowed the Pakistani military to sidestep a confrontation with the Bahadur faction, which so far has stayed out of the fight.

That assessment is consistent with the behavior of Haqqani network allies during previous Pakistani military actions in the tribal areas straddling the border with Afghanistan. The network has brokered several peace agreements between its Pakistani allies and the military, both in North Waziristan and South Waziristan. Those agreements were advantageous to the Pakistani government because they divided militant forces that had successfully fought off military offensives as a united force until 2006.

The political division of the militants into two camps was a major factor in the military’s 2009 capture of South Waziristan, until then the biggest den of militancy in Pakistan. But it also created an unlikely post-conflict spectacle there of Haqqani network-allied militants providing security to Pakistani military contractors building the U.S.-financed Gomal Zam hydroelectric dam. The leader of the faction guarding the construction site, Maulvi Nazir, was killed in a January 2013 drone strike, shortly before the dam’s completion.