SOMETIMES one is stunned by Washington’s lack of vision in handling critical policy matters concerning its ally Pakistan.
Just when patience was needed for the Pakistanis’ anger to subside over the release of Raymond Davis, we heard of multiple drone strikes that killed more than 40 persons attending a jirga in Datta Khel, North Waziristan.
Both the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who is directly responsible for managing the tribal regions of Pakistan, and army chief Gen Kayani condemned the attack. Is it right for the sole superpower to act with lack of prudence? Or is this a message to Pakistan that the US doesn’t care?
Datta Khel is located to the west of Miramshah, in North Waziristan Agency. It is a tehsil headquarter that administers the Madda Khel and the Khaddar Khel tribes. The Madda Khel is an important tribe located on the Durand Line on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and hence has a strategic role in determining security in the adjoining Afghan areas of Khost, Paktia and
Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the leader of the militants in North Waziristan, belongs to this tribe. He has become a prominent militant leader with alleged links to the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and Al Qaeda. He is also an influential member of the larger militant local council called Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahideen (United Council of Mujahideen) that includes Maulvi Nazir of Wana. It also included the late Baitullah Mehsud.
The US is convinced that Gul Bahadur has a role in attacks inside Afghanistan and has been urging Pakistan to destroy the militant network controlled by the Haqqanis and Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan.
However, Gul Bahadur is considered an asset by the Pakistan military for maintaining some semblance of control in the region. Furthermore, Gul Bahadur has a record of cooperation with the Pakistani authorities.
In 2006, he brokered the North Waziristan ceasefire that ended attacks on the Pakistan military and he agreed to evict foreigners. The agreement collapsed in July 2007, when a convoy of the Pakistan Army was ambushed and more than 20 soldiers died. Yet, the need to secure peace in North Waziristan while South Waziristan was hostile led to the tacit
continuation of the 2006 agreement in spirit.
Gul Bahadur played a crucial role in establishing the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as an umbrella militant network, under Baitullah Mehsud. Yet Mehsud’s subsequent attacks on Pakistani security forces caused Gul Bahadur to disassociate himself from the TTP, and resigning as deputy leader.
Gul Bahadur joined Maulvi Nazeer in June 2008 to form the Muqami Tehrik-i-Taliban (Local Taliban Movement, MTT), which opposed attacks on Pakistan forces and the presence of foreign fighters. His stance received support from the Pakistani security services.
Bahadur, Nazeer and Baitullah later reconciled in February 2009, to form the Shura Ittehad-ul Mujahideen (United Council of Mujahideen), which pledged loyalty to Mullah Omar of the Afghan Taliban and gave a commitment not to attack the Pakistani military but to concentrate on cross-border operations in Afghanistan.
It is difficult to understand why the US chose the present time to attack Datta Khel. It is well-known that information for many of the drone strikes is provided by tribal sources from the target area; the priority for the US remains to strike any commander of either Al Qaeda or the Haqqani group. The latter is considered to be close to the Pakistan military to the dismay of the US. However, according to information, there was no high-profile target present when the strikes took place except one Sharabat Khan, a senior commander loyal to Gul Bahadur.
Secondly, the local elders were resolving a dispute about ownership rights over chromite mines in the Madda Khel territory.
The question that arises is whether the targeting was a legitimate counter-terrorist act or if the action intended to deliver a message to the Pakistan military by hurting Gul Bahadur, a supporter of the Pakistan military.
After the controversial release of Raymond Davis from a Lahore prison and the expected negative reaction from the public against the US and Pakistan, a wiser approach would have been for the US to reduce its footprint until the Davis affair had settled down. However, that did not happen. Instead, the drone attack angered Gen Kayani who called it “intolerable”.
Evidently, there is an important exchange between the US and Pakistan military taking place through this incident. The US attacked Datta Khel, knowing full well that it would increase the threat against its nationals and property at this critical juncture. Also, the attack coming so soon after the Pakistani establishment provided a favour to the US at great cost to its credibility, clearly signifies to the Pakistani establishment that the US doesn’t really care about Pakistani feelings.
It is a warning to the Pakistani establishment not to delay the North Waziristan operation any further. On the other hand, Pakistan decided to pull out of a trilateral meeting on Afghanistan in Brussels on March 26.
Gen Kayani’s reaction is meant to recover the credibility lost by the military establishment for its putative role in the release of Raymond Davis. Sagacity demands that the US shun its hubris and undertake an exercise in wisdom and patience. If this is not done, then the war in Afghanistan will be difficult to conclude on a positive note and will sour US-Pakistan relationship even more.
The writer is chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.