By Dr Mohammad Taqi
Though hotly debated, the drone operations were not the newsworthy item in the story. The fact that instead of the ‘lawless tribal areas’, the US ‘appeal’ had focused on Quetta and its vicinity caught everyone’s immediate attention.
Analysts have since been debating whether the news item was a feeler to gauge the Pakistani official and public response to the possible attacks in or near Quetta or is a harbinger of the drones swooping down on a densely populated city. The news piece specifically mentions the members of the Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban as the potential targets.
The Quetta Shura has been in existence since 2003 when the Taliban leadership regrouped after the demise of their emirate in Afghanistan. It is the topmost tier of the Afghan Taliban leadership, consisting mostly of those who held cabinet, gubernatorial or military portfolios in the Taliban regime from 1996-2001. The Shura remains under the direct supervision of Mullah Omar, the doctrinal and political leader of the Taliban. (As an aside, one must note that while the man has nothing to do with spirituality in the commonly understood sense of the word, many western journalists insist – erroneously – on calling him the spiritual head of the Taliban.) It is a policy and decision-making entity dealing with both strategy and tactics. It appoints the shadow governors (waali), district administrators (uluswaal) and operational commanders, and even adjudicates criminal justice matters.
Now consider Quetta, which has a population of roughly one million people. But also of note is that the city is home to the Pakistan Army’s XII Corps, ISI regional headquarters, the Balochistan Frontier Corps, a robust army selection and recruitment centre and the Pakistan Air Force base Samungli. And last but not least, the Pakistan Army’s Command and Staff College, almost a required stepping stone to senior leadership in the army, is at Quetta.
Considering the massive cantonment that Quetta is, anyone familiar with the city’s grid plan and its post-1978 demographics would find it hard to believe that the head honchos of the Shura can move in or around the city without the knowledge of the security establishment. In addition, any movement of the Taliban to Karachi or northwards to South Waziristan is incomprehensible without the local authorities getting a whiff of it. It cannot be completely lost on the US planners that the Taliban cannot operate in Quetta without at least some local protection. What, then, is the US trying to achieve by threatening strikes in a major population centre?
In a situation where the US could not or would not use political, economic and full military means to resolve a major rift with Pakistan, it has chosen to continue relying on the use of limited force in well-circumscribed areas. These so-called discrete military operations carried out through Predator or Reaper drones are supposed to press Pakistan to act against the al Qaeda-Taliban sanctuaries in Quetta and FATA. But exactly how discreet are these drone operations?
For starters, the Foreign Office spokesman in his response to the Post article has conceded that there are certain red lines that the US cannot cross. He also referred to the ‘boxes’ (aerial or geographical demarcations) over which the drones operate. More important is a small technical detail that the drones can operate successfully only when unopposed. They can be shot down by fighter jets with relative ease; Iraq’s MiG-25s did that circa 1999. It all points to an undeclared, uneasy and reluctant understanding between the US and Pakistan about the drone campaign, which George Bush also mentions in his recently released memoir, Decision Points.
Instead of publicly confronting the Pakistani security establishment for harboring the three major components of the Afghan militancy, i.e. the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani network and Hizb-e-Islami (Gulbuddin), the US has opted to up the ante through unattributed news reports. When reached by this writer, the media contact persons at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and the CENTCOM offices in Tampa, Florida, declined to comment on The Washington Post story. What the Post report really did was point towards the hypocritical moves in the dirty dancing going on between the US and Pakistan for almost a decade now.
Both the proponents and opponents of the drone attacks agree that they are a tactic, not a strategy. There is little doubt that the campaign has successfully decapitated the senior Pakistani, Afghan and al-Qaeda jihadist leadership and disrupted their movement, planning and training, thus resulting in significant execution setbacks for them in the Pak-Afghan region and around the world. It is also pertinent to note that research led by the Pashtun intelligentsia has debunked the myth of high civilian casualties perpetuated by a pro-jihadist media and some bleeding-heart liberals in the West.
Under pressure from its military commanders in Afghanistan, the US political leadership has to act. But like the original anti-Taliban campaign of 2001, they want to take the easy route and do it at a minimum human, dollar, and political cost. This approach, which involves back door dealings with the Pakistani establishment, did not give durable results then and will fail again. The US must remember that the only time their ‘allies’ make even a half-hearted move against the jihadists, is in the face of overwhelming public pressure, e.g. in Swat. Reluctant to act for two years, the army undertook the operation after intense public, media and political pressure. There is no shortcut to developing a political consensus about the strategy.
Discreet military operations cannot deliver strategic results or induce a paradigm shift in the Pakistani establishment’s thinking. If the public opinion reaching us directly, especially from the Pakhtunkhwa and FATA, is anything to go by, the people want the drone campaign to be legally regularised and the political leadership to take ownership. Without helping the Pakistani political leaders stand up to the India-centric elements, the US risks not only tactical failure but also a strategic debacle in Afghanistan. The Pakistani establishment has set the US up to keep playing whack-a-mole with the jihadists. Drone attacks in Quetta is one such whack that must be avoided.