Such was the seriousness of the situation following the drone strike by the United States killing Afghan Taliban supreme leader Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor in Balochistan’s Naushki district on May 21 that the Pakistan Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, took the unprecedented step of meeting the American ambassador David Hale at the army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi to record his concern over the attack.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry had already summoned Ambassador Hale for a meeting with Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi, who delivered a protest note to him over the attack by the unmanned aerial vehicle that violated Pakistan’s borders and sovereignty. However, General Raheel Sharif added his forceful voice to the protest by telling the US ambassador that the drone attack violated Pakistan’s sovereignty and territory and was detrimental to Pak-US ties.
The army chief, who has played a key role in the effort to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, argued that the drone strike was counter-productive to the ongoing peace process for regional stability.
Not to be left behind, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan belatedly took to the press to use much tougher language than the army chief and the foreign secretary by warning the US against its use of ‘cloak-and-dagger’ policy and pointing out that the drone strikes would have serious implications for the Pak-US relations and the proposed Afghan peace talks.
Terming the drone attacks as unlawful, unjustified and unacceptable, he argued that accepting the US logic for conducting such attacks would mean that the world would become a jungle.
If Pakistan’s civil and military leadership felt outraged by the US drone strike in Balochistan that was carried out without informing Islamabad, the mood in the US against Pakistan was no less hostile. Pakistan has long been accused of sheltering the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network and playing a ‘double game’. It was clear the drone strike was deliberately carried out in Balochistan to prove that Mulla Akhtar Mansoor and other Taliban leaders were living and operating in the province.
The message from Washington was loud and clear that Pakistan should itself take action against the irreconcilable Taliban leaders or the US would do the job. The Afghan government, too, has been demanding action against the Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban leaders following their refusal to hold peace talks with it.
However, President Ashraf Ghani’s embattled government has made no real effort to initiate action against the Pakistani Taliban and the Baloch separatists who are based in Afghanistan and are launching attacks in Pakistan. Besides, it hasn’t done anything to remove Pakistan’s concerns about the misuse of Afghanistan’s soil by India to destabilise Pakistan.
There is no doubt that the first-ever drone attack in Balochistan crossed the ‘red line’ that Islamabad had conveyed to Washington in 2010. Though Pakistan has long condemned the drone strikes that first hit South Waziristan in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) in June 2004 and termed them a violation of its sovereignty, it didn’t expect that an attack would also be carried out in Balochistan, which had been specifically mentioned as a ‘no-go area’ for the US drones.
The warning by President Barack Obama that such attacks would be carried out in Pakistan in future also in case of threat to the US was particularly alarming for Islamabad. Any more drone attacks could further embitter the uneasy Pak-US relations. Islamabad cannot afford to earn the enmity of the US as the world’s lone superpower has the means to inflict harm on Pakistan directly or indirectly through some of Pakistan’s hostile neighbours.
It remains to be seen if, arguably, the strongest Pakistan protest to-date to the US over the drone strikes would have any real impact. If the past is any guide, it is unlikely to stop the US from carrying out more such attacks in Pakistan. There have been more than 420 drone strikes in Pakistan in the last 12 years and Pakistan has lodged protest to the US after most such attacks.
Former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, acknowledged after leaving office that he had given limited permission to the US to conduct the drone strikes in Fata by flying in a well-defined air corridor, but it is no secret that the Americans exploited the opportunity by expanding the area of their operations and also its intensity.
It was also Musharraf who used to wrongly claim in the mid-2000s that Pakistan Air Force, instead of the US, was carrying out the air strikes (drone strikes) against the militants. One such claim by him about the October 30, 2006 drone attack on a madrassa in Chenagai, Bajaur Agency, killing 83 persons, mostly children, had tragic consequences when the first major suicide bombing by the militants in Dargai killed 42 soldiers.
Subsequently, the WikiLeaks exposed the connivance of the Pakistani rulers, such as the then President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani with the US in secretly allowing the drone strikes and at the same time publicly protesting the attacks. It also became obvious at the time that the US used its drone programme to prevent talks and sabotage any peace agreement between the Pakistan government and the Pakistani Taliban.
The Pak-US relations have their ups and downs but the ties have been gradually deteriorating in recent months. With the US and its Nato allies having withdrawn most of their 150,000 forces from Afghanistan by December 2014, the dependence on Pakistan and the use of its overland route to supply Nato forces has been reduced. There was always this fear that lesser dependence on Pakistan would prompt the US to highlight dormant issues, such as Pakistan’s nuclear programme and also downgrade defence ties.
There is also a growing feeling in Washington that Islamabad contributed to the inability of the US-led Nato forces to achieve victory in Afghanistan against the Afghan Taliban by allowing the later to use sanctuaries in Pakistan. The closeness between the US and India also alarmed Pakistan and contributed to its sense of insecurity. The US Congress piled further pressure on Islamabad by stopping the Obama administration from paying its share of the bargain while selling F-16s to Pakistan.
The issue of Dr Shakil Afridi’s imprisonment in Pakistan is also hanging fire and it seems the US would continue applying pressure on Islamabad to release him as it considers him a hero for helping it to track down Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. For Pakistan though, he is a traitor who spied for the CIA and could only be freed on the court orders.