Drone strikes on Pakistan remain on radar
By Syed Fazl-e-Haider
KARACHI - US President Barack Obama and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday agreed on a joint strategy to counter terrorism and extremism in a move to improve ties that plunged into crisis following the US raid to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on Pakistan soil in 2011 and the US air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border later that year.
In a 90-minute long one-on-one meeting in Washington, the two leaders discussed the two issues, which are the major irritants in bilateral ties. Sharif urged Obama to halt drone strikes, play role in resolution of the dispute with India over Kashmir, help end
Pakistan's energy crisis, and release Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman languishing in the US jail.
The US drone strikes on Pakistan territory has been a thorny subject in relations between the two countries. Sharif said Wednesday he urged Obama to end the program, but Obama made no reference to issue in his comments. In a joint statement, however, the leaders said their partnership was "based on the principles of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity".
Sharif's meeting with Obama in the Oval Office of the White House came a day after Amnesty International released a report providing new details about the alleged victims of US drone attacks in Pakistan, one of them a 68-year-old grandmother hit while farming with her grandchildren. The report noted that in nine strikes carried out between May 2012 and July 2013, at least 29 unarmed civilians lost their lives.
Political observers believe that Sharif could not convince the US leadership over the counter-productively and unlawfulness of drone attacks inside Pakistan, despite Amnesty International's report strengthened the country's case in Washington.
For his part, Obama raised the issues of Pakistan dragging its feet on punishing those responsible for the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai and in reining in the jihadi group Jamaat ud- Dawa. He has called on Pakistan to release Dr Shakil Afridi, who helped the CIA hunt down in Bin Laden to his hideout in Abbottabad.
Both leaders welcomed the resumption of the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue. Washington has already announced to release of US$1.6 billion in aid to cash-strapped Pakistan in a move to boost a flow of assistance that slowed in recent years amid a downturn in relations.
It was the killing of Pakistanis in US-led drone strikes that remained the most telling indicator of the fragility of the relationship. Backed by the Amnesty International report which , which the drone strikes as amounting to war crimes or extrajudicial executions, Pakistan called on the US to comply with its obligations under international law by investigating the killings documented in the report and providing victims with ''full reparation.''
"People who are clearly no imminent threat to the US, are not fighting against the US, are being killed," Reuters reported Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International's Pakistan researcher, as saying. "The US has to come clean publicly with the justifications for these killings."
On the other hand, the US still considers its drone strikes to be a key weapon against insurgent groups responsible for staging cross-border forays into Afghanistan.
Daily Times commented,
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has raised the drone issue on his current trip to the US, calling the strikes an "irritant" in the Pakistan-US relationship but he fails to mention that Pakistan allowed the drones access to our land in search of militants. Politicians like Mr Sharif like to talk about how their efforts to curb militancy are being affected because of these drone attacks but one would like to ask: what efforts?
Illusionary politics of the kind Imran Khan likes to play speak of peace talks and negotiations but no real efforts to beat back the terror threat are seen. Mr Khan is currently gloating about the Amnesty International report, saying that his party, the PTI, is the only one to loudly oppose the drones but he has not shared what he plans to do about ending the militant menace apart from appeasing them with talks. The drone report is a welcome eye-opener for all those ignorant enough to not see the stark reality, but it should have been more detailed on how we landed in this mess in the first place.
There is still no consensus between the two sides about how will the cross-border movement of militants along the Pakistan-Afghan border from both sides be tackled after withdrawal of US forces next year. US drone strikes in the country's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan complicate the issue, while Islamabad's initiative for holding talks with Pakistani Taliban raises US concerns.
The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is currently the strongest militant group in the country's lawless tribal belt along the border. The US believes that the TTP is fiercely anti-American and responsible for launching several deadly attacks on foreign forces in Afghanistan. Therefore Washington wants Islamabad launch a full-fledged military operation against the group to weaken it in the run up to Afghan war endgame. Before the talks in Washington, the TTP asked the Pakistani government to take measures to stop drone strikes in which many of its key leaders have been killed.
There is also still no consensus between the two countries on security and counter-terrorism strategies as the US withdraws from Afghanistan, as well as the nature of bilateral ties after its pullout next year.
"The Obama administration recognizes that Sharif is keen on democratization, keen on normalizing ties with India, keen on some degree of economic reform, and both countries need one another to stabilize Afghanistan and secure a US exit," Arif Rafiq, a scholar at the Middle East Institute think tank, was cited as saying by UAE's The National newspaper. "But at the same time they view Sharif as a mixed bag, because he is inclined to peace deals with militants and lacks the will and capacity to push back against the Pakistan military's policy of using militant groups as proxies vis-a-vis Afghanistan and India."
Dawn in an editorial said,
On the security front, both sides appear to prefer to leave the principal issues left unsaid in public statement: a post-2014 Afghan settlement; the Sharif government's bid for talks with the TTP; the internationalist jihadis in Fata [Federally Administrated Tribal Area] and Pakistan proper; and non-violent extremism that creates an enabling environment for violent militancy. Mr Sharif has mentioned drones and his government's desire to see drone strikes stopped, but that is a conversation unlikely to go very far. What, President Obama and his team will likely ask, is Pakistan doing about the very serious regional and international terrorist threat that lurks in Fata? And how exactly is Pakistan going to deal with the TTP threat, in the dialogue stage and later?
It further said,
Yet, that does not mean Pakistan does not have important questions of its own to ask. Is the White House any clearer about how to nudge the reconciliation process in Afghanistan forward? How will the highly disruptive and damaging cross-border movement - from both sides - along the Durand Line be managed as foreign forces pull out next year and then managed beyond that in 2014? On both sides then, the security-related questions that will likely be discussed aren't just tough but also have no good answers. On the bright side, at least both sides are again talking to one another and not at each other.
Syed Fazl-e-Haider ( www.syedfazlehaider.com ) is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of many books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan, published in May 2004. E-mail, email@example.com
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