Deadliest drone strike, but not the last - Rahimullah Yusufzai - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

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A day after the dramatic release of CIA operative and double murderer Raymond Davis as a result of a complex “blood-money” deal brokered primarily by Pakistani and American intelligence agents, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) attacked a tribal jirga in Dattakhel in a remote part of North Waziristan, killing 48 innocent tribesmen, including children, and causing injuries to 50 people.

This was the deadliest strike by US drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas since June 18, 2004, when the first-ever such attack killed the local Taliban commander Nek Mohammad and sabotaged the first peace deal that Pakistani authorities had controversially made with the militants in South Waziristan. Scores of civilians had already lost their lives in the previous 232 US drone attacks also. But the one in Dattakhel on March 17 was the first time that nobody doubted that those slain, wounded and maimed were all civilians. The victims had gathered to resolve an issue concerning the monetary share of their respective sub-tribes and clans from the lease of a jointly-owned hill containing a chromites mine.

A section of the Western media did try to create doubts about the identity of those present in the jirga, held in the open space near the banks of river Tochi, by pointing out that one Sharbat Khan who died in the attack had links with the local Taliban. However, this claim had no leg to stand on because everyone knew Sharbat Khan, the contractor who had leased the chromites mine for Rs8.8 million and had been summoned by the jirga to explain as to when and how he was planning to pay the lease money to different sections of the Madakhel Wazir sub-tribe that owned the Khar Sangi hill. Even if there happened to be a Taliban fighter or sympathiser in the jirga on that fateful day, no government or military would order bombing a gathering of more than 150 people discussing a mundane issue in the open just to kill one suspected militant. They weren’t doing military training or finalising plans to infiltrate the nearby Afghan border to attack the US-led Nato forces. That kind of gatherings aren’t held in the open, and everyone in South and North Waziristan is aware of the constant overhead presence of drones carrying out surveillance and searching for targets.

It wasn’t the first time that a gathering of tribesmen was attacked with lethal missiles fired by the Predators and the more advanced Reapers. Funerals of “militants” killed in drone strikes in Waziristan have been hit due to the belief of the attackers that all those present would be Taliban or their sympathisers. Across the border in Afghanistan, trigger-happy Americans and their Nato allies employing jet fighters, helicopter-gunships and drones have attacked not only funerals and graveyards but also weddings, passenger vehicles, jirgas and children collecting firewood. In recent strikes, farmers digging, weeding and sowing in their fields were attacked from the air because the pilots thought they were planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs)!

In fact, both the militants and the Nato forces in Afghanistan, and in many cases their counterparts in Pakistan, now use the same tactic of getting even with each other, and in the process killing and injuring a larger number of ordinary civilians than their enemies. The militants trigger a second explosionm mostly through a remote-controlled device, after having ensured that rescue workers, including soldiers and cops, have gathered in sufficient numbers after the first blast. The Nato pilots flying jets and helicopters and the drone operators sitting thousands of miles away from the killing fields of Waziristan and Afghanistan in the US and undertaking operations through computer screens and remote auto-feeds, now invariably carry out the second and third strike to take out all those rushing to rescue the dying and the injured. This has been described by UNHRC investigator Philip Alston, who challenged the legality of the US drone strikes in Pakistan as the “PlayStation” mentality to killing because the person manning the computer just has to push a button to rain death from the sky.

The UAVs are operated by the CIA, which has a history of carrying out extrajudicial and targeted killings all over the world and using private security firms, such as the Blackwater (renamed Xe Services), for which Davis once worked, to gather intelligence and undertake support operations. Davis possessed a GPS device of the kind reportedly used to direct drone strikes in Waziristan. and it increasingly became obvious that he was one of the CIA contractors involved not only in the execution of the controversial drones programmes but also espionage activities in Pakistan unknown to the ISI.

The mystery deepened when the US suspended the drone strikes against targets in Pakistani territory for almost three weeks after the arrest of Davis on Jan 27 when he shot dead two young Pakistanis who were giving him a chase on the streets of Lahore. That explained Washington’s desperation in seeking the release of Davis, a spymaster described by President Barack Obama as “our diplomat,” by whatever means and at whatever cost. Paying $2.35 million as blood-money to the heirs of the slain Pakistanis, therefore, wasn’t a costly bargain owing to the sensitive and ugly nature of the job assigned to Davis.

Though the drone strikes resumed while Davis was still in the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore, the day chosen for the deadliest attack in North Waziristan was March 17 when the disguised CIA contractor was out of harm’s way and flying home to the US. The attack was variously mentioned as celebration of Davis’s release and a “gift” to Pakistan and CIA’s “revenge” for jailing and prosecuting its agent. army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani came out with a strongly-worded statement condemning the drone attack and assuring the people of Waziristan that their life, honour and dignity would be protected at all costs.

It was unusual for him to comment on the drone strikes, though one wondered whether the military would now be taking concrete steps to protect the people of Waziristan from such attacks in future. As if on cue, everyone in the government, including President Asif Ali Zardari, also issued statements condemning the drone strike. Few believed them, however, in view of the widespread belief, thanks to Wikileaks, that they have been privately condoning these attacks in their meetings with US officials.

In fact, the army chief’s anger also seemed confined to this particular incident on March 17 due to the heavy death toll of civilians and on account of the outrage caused by it in Pakistan. A week before the attack, Maj Gen Ghayoor Mahmood, the military commander of the operations in North Waziristan, had publicly and unusually acknowledged that the US drone strikes were effective as mostly hardcore Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants were being killed. He even gave figures to the media to substantiate his claim. This was strange, because even the US military authorities have made no such claims. Rather, the US doesn’t even officially acknowledge that it is carrying out the drone strikes in Pakistani territory. Instead, information about those killed in the attacks is leaked to the US media or claims about the presence of someone important in the Al-Qaeda or Taliban hierarchy, such as Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, are made in case the drone strikes miss their targets and cause civilian deaths.

Maj Gen Ghayoor Mahmood’s statement must have gladdened the hearts of the Americans as it justified the drone strikes and showed their efficacy. It also angered the Hafiz Gul Bahadur-led militants in North Waziristan who aren’t part of the Hakimullah Mahsud-headed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and are still bound by a peace accord with the government. Though the militants are threatening to end the peace agreement as they believe the drone attacks take place with the cooperation of Pakistan government, efforts are being made by the grand tribal jirga in North Waziristan to save the accord. The call for jihad against the US given by some members of this jirga is also being downplayed as the personal viewpoint of those tribal elders. Before long, the drone strikes could resume because the CIA’s past and present heads have described them as the “only game in town” and the Pakistani ruling elite are unwilling and unable to stop them.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahim

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