Drone dependency

On the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali, a Dawar tribesman is in the midst of shifting his family to a new home. The reason: he has just discovered local Taliban militants, together with foreign al-Qaeda forces, using an adjacent compound. "Living close to such people these days is tantamount to inviting death, as the American drones are chasing al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters like bees," he says, talking to neighbours before setting off to his new home. That the Dawar family is completely uprooting itself in search of a safer place to live is a direct result of the recent increase in drone attacks triggered by the 30 December killing of seven employees of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The event took place at the Chapman 'forward operating' base in Afghanistan's Khost province, when a Jordanian 'double agent' named Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi blew himself up.

In a videotape released after the attack, al-Balawi was seen sitting next to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehsud. Coupled with the fact that the assault took place deep inside a fortified base, the videotape forcefully underlines a newly strengthening coordination: among al-Qaeda, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban in jointly attacking US forces in Afghanistan. This is further made clear by the fact that, while the Jordanian al-Balawi was an al-Qaeda recruit, he depended on logistical support from both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to carry out his mission.

Of course, this triangle of cooperation was known well before the al-Balawi attack, as formerly disparate militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan have increasingly come together under a joint ideological umbrella. In particular, Washington has concluded that defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan would be impossible unless Afghan jihadi leader Jalaluddin Haqqani's network, based in Waziristan, is destroyed. Active in Afghanistan's Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces, which border North and South Waziristan, Haqqani exerts considerable influence in Pakistan's tribal regions. In turn, this gives the network a strategic advantage in inflicting damage on American and NATO troops across the border.

The strong support for the Haqqani network in North Waziristan dates back to the early days of the US-backed Afghan jihad. At that time, the then-ailing Afghan leader was using foreign money and weapons to strengthen his support base. Today, the hand of the Haqqani network has been evident in some of them most vicious actions to take place in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was also clear in the 30 December attack: in Khost, the stronghold of the Haqqani network, al-Balawi could not have planned the operation without the logistical support of the former's network. Furthermore, the Haqqani group has a history of not engaging with the media, instead using Pakistani Taliban groups to claim responsibility, as was the case this time around.

'First' operation
It is with an eye to disrupting just such networks – while hoping to ensure minimal casualties (US and civilian) – that Washington has been stepping up the deployment of unmanned drone aircrafts over the last few years. Indeed, in his videotape al-Balawi explicitly stated: "This … attack will be the first of the revenge operations against the Americans and their drone teams outside the Pakistani border, after they killed the amir [chief] of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud." (Hakimullah Mehsud, who as noted was seen sitting next to al-Balawi in the taping, took over TTP operations after Baitullah's death in August 2009.) Yet while this approach has been able to eliminate some leaders – the most high-profile being Baitullah himself – overall the returns from this strategy are poor.

During the first 20 days of this year, there were 10 drone attacks in North and South Waziristan. In all of 2009 there were 46 such attacks, 28 the year before that, and only 48 between 14 January 2006 and 8 April 2009. Despite this fast-mounting use of the remote-controlled bombers, however, the 'success' rate of these attacks, in terms of being able to take out their intended targets, has been dismal: for those 48 attacks between 2006 and 8 April 2009, just 14 al-Qaeda leaders were killed. The success rate of these strikes thus comes to no more than six percent. Indeed, the efficacy of drone attacks has changed very little between April 2009 and today, with the killing of Baitullah Mehsud the only significant victory. In addition, however, some 687 Pakistani civilians were also killed in those attacks. Residents of Miranshah and Mir Ali, two major towns in North Waziristan, say that despite the strikes, they see no sign that the number of militants – foreign or local – is decreasing.

Today, Waziristan has become an arena in which countries with troops deployed in Afghanistan are keen on wiping out the militancy in Pakistan that is fuelling the violence across the border. The Pakistani military is continuing with its Operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation) in the Mehsud areas of South Waziristan, an offensive that began in mid-October last year, when Islamabad began taking back ground lost to the TTP between February 2005 and October 2009. The area has long been a TTP stronghold, with the organisation now trying to create space for itself in North Waziristan as well as the Kurram and Orakzai tribal regions.

According to local tribal sources, the Pakistani establishment is not fighting this battle alone. They say that the CIA, in collaboration with its Pakistani counterpart, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has a functioning network of spies across North Waziristan. The network is said to be so extensive that "a trained spy is posted everywhere to pinpoint the arrival of any wanted al-Qaeda or Taliban commander or leader." Speaking on condition of anonymity, these sources suggest that the Americans "have penetrated deep inside al-Qaeda and are now using Arab contacts within the group to eliminate key targets. There is deep suspicion among the terror groups about the presence of US contacts among the Arabs, and there are some cases in which Taliban and al-Qaeda are holding some Arabs on suspicion of having links to the CIA." While not all Arabs would be seen as suspect, of course, the Jordanian links will now make the CIA increasingly anxious over the possibility of other Arab double agents.

While informants track the comings and goings of insurgent leaders, residents say the militants are keeping close tabs on the movement of civilians. In each village, the term non-local is now used to refer to anyone who is not from the narrow confines of the village. "These days, it is impossible for someone from Peshawar to be roaming around [our village]," said one local, asking not to be identified. "He will immediately be spotted, and militants do not allow such a person to go without being interrogated."

Waiting for boots
Clearly, the intensified drone attacks have made the militants increasingly fearful. According to a counter-intelligence official in Peshawar, who asked not to be named, "The top leadership is spending one hour at one place and the next hour at another place. The drone technology has made the militants' lives extremely difficult." Nonetheless, the strikes are not deterring the militants from carrying out attacks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, officials in Islamabad claim to have no problem with the drone attacks, despite the deaths and trauma they have caused the local population. Despite the fact that the Pakistani government does try to publicly distance itself from the attacks, in mid-January it asked the US to hand over the technology so that it could begin to maintain its own drone fleet.

Regardless of who is behind the drone's joystick, however, the fact of the matter is that drone technology has limited uses in the absence of complementary ground support – and such support cannot, for the most part, come without the Pakistani authorities' approval. According to an electronics professor at the University of Engineering and Technology in Peshawar, "The powerful cameras [on a drone] can provide you with some images, but they are not good enough to identify someone. Complimented by human intelligence on the ground, however, this technology can be very effective."

As noted, the CIA and the ISI do have an extensive network of informants. Yet Washington and Islamabad are continuing to face serious differences of opinion in how to pursue the insurgents. For instance, the Pakistani military establishment is upset with the CIA for allegedly being 'lenient' with militants that are targeting the Pakistani security forces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the US is mainly interested in targeting groups active inside Afghanistan, such as that of Jalaluddin Haqqani. All the same, the drone killing of Baitullah Mehsud in August 2009 appears to have narrowed down these differences somewhat, with Islamabad viewing the killing as a newfound indication that the US is now looking to target anti-Pakistan Taliban leaders, as well. This gesture may bring the two sides closer to cooperation, even with disagreements continuing on both sides.

Mehmood Shah, a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army, has argued that the US belief in its "air superiority" is flawed. He argues that that boots are needed on the ground in Waziristan before there can be any hope of military success. "The US says Osama bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora, in Afghanistan, because not enough boots were put on ground to surround him," adds Shah, who was also formerly the security chief for the tribal areas. It is important to note that Shah believes that Pakistani forces, and not American ones, should be the ones sent to the area.

While the Pakistan Army does have soldiers on the ground, the problem is that they do not conduct follow-up after drone attacks. Without this, the militants' networks continue to function quite effectively. And the fact that there is no follow-up highlights the continuing lack of effective coordination between the two sides. The question now is whether the US will feel a need for American boots in Waziristan, if the drone attacks fail to dent al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in the region.

~ Iqbal Khattak is a Contributing Editor to this magazine.

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