Drone war in the neighbourhood
Drone wars typify the intrigues and the cloak and dagger nature of the war by the Af-Pak-US protagonists, to take on the militants on both sides of the Durand Line. The US Reaper drone that accounted for Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, whilst in Balochistan, has confirmed Pakistani complicity in hosting Afghan Taliban on their soil (akin, to the “Strategic Assets” in the form of Kashmir-centric militants).
Earlier Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had vented his ire on the Pakistani intransigence and duplicity. “Pakistan should no longer continue the good and bad terrorist policy. There is no difference between good and bad terrorists, all terrorists are terrorists," he said.
Convinced that Pakistan was seeking refuge under the plausible deniability of existence of its patronised guests, the US struck alone via the drone in the Baloch town of Ahmad Wal – importantly, the drone attack was conducted directly by the US Department of Defense, by its Joint Special Operation Command (JSOC) and not by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drones which operate with a semblance of unstated alignment with the Pakistani authorities (though, publically denied).
For the first time, the reach of the drones had extended beyond the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to the no-go hinterland of Balochistan, thereby breaching the “Red Line” for Pakistan.
Recently, the Afghan Taliban had upped the violence quotient and were brazen and smug in spurning the olive branch extended by the Afghan-US proposals.
Mullah Mansour’s end was met with a stoic and uncomfortable silence by the Pakistanis, followed by the usual concern on the violation of the Pakistani sovereignty – eerily reminiscent, of Operation Neptune Spear (the unilateral raid on “taking out” Osama Bin Laden from the Abbottabad compound, by the US Navy Seals). Except this time, there was no specialised US force involved – just a “hunter-killer” Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), MQ-9 Reaper, worth $ 17 million a unit.
Since 2004, there have been over 400 drone strikes by the US forces in Pakistani territory. While these have claimed nearly 2500 militants, the collateral damage of civilian life and the rightful questions of territorial integrity, sovereignty, and the ostensible “blowback” impact have political and diplomatic repercussions for the Pakistani establishment. Hence the angry posturing.
Shamsi airfield, 320 kms southwest of Quetta has the notoriety of the worst kept secret of the drone wars – from October 2001 to December 2011, it was a CIA and USAF base for the dreaded drone operations with the covert complicity of the Pakistani establishment.
In November 2011, in an unprecedented skirmish at the Af-Pak border of Salala, the US-Nato troops engaged in an all-out battle with the Pakistani security forces that ultimately killed 28 Pakistani troops – resulting in a public uproar that led to the ultimate closure of the US drone base at Shamsi. The drone base had to be shifted to Afghanistan, though it continues to hit targets on both sides of the border, much to the consternation of the Pakistanis.
A publically unstated reality of the drone war is the positive “force-multiplier” impact it has had on the “feet-on-ground” approach of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, by the Pakistani Military in the last two years, which has said to have accounted for 3500 militants and over 20,000 arrests. Given the unforgiving terrain of the FATA region, these drones were invaluable in hitting the hard-to-reach and time-sensitive targets.
However, the Pakistani forces targeted only the Pakistan-centric militant groups like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, while they were peculiarly guilty of selectively ignoring and harboring elements like the Afghan-centric, Haqqani Network – this consistent duplicity riled the US-Afghan sensibilities about the supposed coming of age for the Pakistani military.
This frustration with the Pakistani stand invariably led to the singular approach of reviving the drone tactics (down from 122 strikes in 2010 to about only 2 in 2016), to take out the “high-value” targets that could not be trusted with the Pakistani agencies – therefore, Mullah Mansour’s attack was conveyed to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Army Chief Raheel Sharif, only after the successful hit.
In a recent thawing meeting with the Commander of Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson and US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Olson in Islamabad, General Raheel Sharif demanded a reciprocal targeting of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan militants and their chief Mullah Fazlullah in Afghanistan!
The ghost-like tactics of the US drone wars are said to emanate from nearly 60 ultra-secretive drone bases dotting the globe. Reflective of the age of high-tech covert operations with minimal human interventions – the drones are clinical and ruthless in impact. Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas is the ground zero of the drone wars – “pilots” sitting here remote control the reconnaissance missions, sensors and ultimately releasing the fire power to deadly effect across the other side of the globe on Af-Pak theatre.
Latest in the bandwagon of “push-button” warfare and video-game-like operations, these technological wonders can be temporarily “sub-contracted” to a facility like Creech Air Force in Las Vegas, and then “returned controls” to a potential air base in Jalalabad, Kandahar, or Baghram for landing. Drones are truly the new-age instruments of the future military doctrine and planning – ironically, the Pakistanis too have developed their own version of military drone called the Burraq (it saw military operations in the Tirah valley).
The usage of drone wars are often disputed with supposed violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and therefore constituting “war crimes” – as opposed, to the US view of drones as a “right to self-defense” during an armed conflict or when the target constitutes an imminent threat to the US national security.
However, more than the legality and efficacy of usage, the drone wars in the Af-Pak region are a testimony to the increasing trust-deficit between the Indian-Afghan-US combine vis-à-vis the established Pakistani position on tackling militancy in the region that tantamount to running with the hare and hunting with the hound.
Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal.