Yesterday, I speculated on whether Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was turning his back on his campaign promise of peace talks with the Taliban so that he could seek US counterterrorism funds suddenly not being used in Afghanistan. Today’s New York Times joins me in pointing out the key role of counterterrorism in an important US-Pakistan meeting in Washington today:
Secretary of State John Kerry is to meet Pakistan’s foreign and national security policy adviser, Sartaj Aziz, here on Monday, and counterterrorism operations are to be a major subject of discussion, a senior State Department official said Sunday.
The Times article, however, centers on a key piece of context that I hadn’t brought into yesterday’s speculation. The growing likelihood that all US troops will be forced to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year in the absence of a signed Bilateral Security Agreement means that the US needs a new home for its drones:
The risk that President Obama may be forced to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year has set off concerns inside the American intelligence agencies that they could lose their air bases used for drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Pakistan and for responding to a nuclear crisis in the region.
The concern has become serious enough that the Obama administration has organized a team of intelligence, military and policy specialists to devise alternatives to mitigate the damage if a final security deal cannot be struck with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who has declined to enact an agreement that American officials thought was completed last year.
If Mr. Obama ultimately withdrew all American troops from Afghanistan, the C.I.A.’s drone bases in the country would have to be closed, according to administration officials, because it could no longer be protected.
Oh, the horrors of it all! Who can bear the tragedy of all those poor, homeless drones, wandering around the world with no base close enough for a rapid trip inside the borders of a sovereign nation that has stated in no uncertain terms that it considers drone strikes to be illegal and to be war crimes?
The Times article reminds us that the US once used a base inside Pakistan for drone flights:
Their base inside Pakistan was closed after a shooting involving a C.I.A. security contractor, Raymond Davis, and the raid into Pakistani territory that killed Osama bin Laden, both in 2011.
That bit simplifies the Shamsi Air Base story a bit. While it is true that Pakistan stated that they were kicking the US off the base in June of 2011, not very long after the Osama bin Laden raid (and a bit longer after the Raymond Davis fiasco), the US didn’t actually leave the base until December, after the US killed 24 Pakistani troops at a border station.
So it would seem to me that in today’s talks with Aziz, Kerry will be dangling a couple billion dollars that will be Pakistan’s for the taking, but only if they meet two conditions. Condition one will be to continue Sharif’s new-found enthusiasm for attacking militant groups and condition two will be to re-open Shamsi air base for the US to continue drone operations.
Should such an agreement come to pass, it would completely invalidate the elections that Pakistan held last May, in which Pakistan for the very first time experienced a peaceful transition from one elected government to another. One of Sharif’s main campaign points was the establishment of peace talks with the Taliban. He now is carrying out military actions against them instead. Imran Khan, who came in second in the election, campaigned on a pledge to end US drone strikes. Opening a base inside Pakistan for US drones would render votes cast for Khan meaningless.
Perhaps the only solace that the US would be able to offer Pakistan should they agree to re-open Shamsi to drones would be that after the formal US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the base in Shamsi would almost certainly be used by the US to violate Afghanistan’s sovereignty on a regular basis, just as the US has been doing lately to Pakistan from Afghanistan.
The past three days have seen a number of major attacks between Pakistan’s Taliban, known as the TTP, and Pakistan’s military. On Sunday, a bomb exploded in a van transporting Pakistani troops, killing 20. This attack took place in Bannu (Bannu will return to this story in a moment). On Monday, a suicide bomber killed 13 just a few meters from the outside wall of the General Headquarters of the Pakistani Army in Rawilpindi. Today, Pakistani jets killed at least 24 with bombs dropped in North Waziristan.
It appears that in the Sunday attack, the bomb was in a vehicle rented for transporting troops:
“The explosion took place in a civil Hiace van inside Bannu Parade Ground at 8:45 am,” a senior military official told The Express Tribune. The blast occurred just as Frontier Corps (FC) troops had stepped into the van ahead of their departure.
“The K-P paramilitary unit had rented a vehicle from the market for movement of its troops,” he added. The vehicle was supposed to carry the soldiers to Razmak, a town in North Waziristan Agency.
“It wasn’t immediately known whether it was a suicide bombing or the device was detonated through a remote control,” he added. “The van driver was also killed in the blast.”
The suicide bomber in Monday’s attack was first seen on a bicycle:
District Coordination Officer Sajid Zafar Dall said that at the time of the attack a gaggle of children were heading to school. “Our initial assessment is that the bomber was possibly on a bicycle and he then approached the target on foot,” he added. Since it was morning time, RA Bazaar was bustling with office-goers and schoolchildren.
Quoting eyewitnesses, Sardar Zulfikar, the SHO of RA Bazaar police station, said the bomber was walking towards the GHQ but detonated the explosive vest the moment he saw army troops at RA Bazaar’s main roundabout, T-Chowk. The building of National Logistics Cell is located nearby.
The RA Bazaar is considered a high security zone due to its proximity with the GHQ. Police investigators believe the bomber intended to target the military headquarters. However, he couldn’t get to his target due to the tight security.
Today’s bombing by the Pakistani Air Force appears to be in response to these attacks:
Several suspected militant hideouts were trampled by Pakistan’s military’s fighter jets in Mir Ali area of the North Waziristan, killing at least 24 persons and wounding 15 more, various local news channels reported on Tuesday.
The air strike followed a series of terrorist attacks across Pakistan in the past week, including Monday’s blast on a check post in Rawalpindi that martyred 6 army personnel and 7 civilians. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan had claimed the responsibility for the attack. The events had led to a mounting pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to take tougher decisions in response to the recent attacks by TTP.
“This hadn’t been planned before, and Pakistan Air Force jets were called to hit hideouts of the militants involved in attacks on security forces,” said one military official speaking on condition of anonymity.
It appears that the operations by Pakistani forces are continuing in several locations in North Waziristan.
Yesterday, we got the tremendous news that after having lead the world in the number of polio cases as recently as 2009, the World Health Organization announced that there have been zero polio cases in India for three consecutive years. In today’s Express Tribune, we see a discussion of whether and how Pakistan can now rise to the challenge of polio eradication. In the article, we learn that the US drone killing of Pakistan Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud not only disrupted the developing plans for peace talks between the Taliban and Pakistan’s government, but it also affected polio vaccinations in North and South Waziristan:
According to the State Minister for National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination Saira Afzal Tarrar, NWA and South Waziristan did not receive any immunisation in months, contrary to former North Waziristan Agency (NWA) surgeon Jan Mir Khan, who was part of recent polio efforts. “After the drone strike that killed Hakimullah, it all stopped. Not just the peace talks, but also our efforts,” she says.
The terrible impact of the CIA’s vaccination ruse employing Dr. Shakeel Afridi in the search for Osama bin Laden has been extensively documented here, but this is the first time I have seen a suggestion that backlash to a drone strike directly resulted in polio vaccines being denied to children. Tarrar is not ready to give up, however, and believes that Pakistan and the Taliban will eventually come to an agreement that will allow vaccinations to resume:
Saira Tarrar also emphasised that the people of the area need to be part of the solution. “Parents are now sick of the ban; this pressurises the Taliban.”
“There is an accessibility problem in Fata, but by 2014, we will get a bargain and get some access.” And access is key, as far as Elias Durray, the head of Polio Eradication at the World Health Organization in Pakistan is concerned. “Immunisation prevents circulation. The virus won’t vanish on its own.”
Let us hope that Pakistan can achieve full vaccine coverage and have polio disappear as quickly in Pakistan as it did in India. Of course, this will require the US actually letting peace negotiations between the Taliban and Pakistan come to fruition, so success is far from guaranteed.
The United States, mostly with John Brennan raining down drones, has been determined to see that neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan enters into peace talks with the Taliban. Recall that in early October, the US snatched Latif Mehsud from Afghan intelligence after they had spent months trying to convince him to help them initiate peace talks. Then, on November 2, the US killed Hakimullah Mehsud, just one day before he was to join peace talks with Pakistan. And with momentum gathering again for peace talks, Brennan even strayed outside the tribal areas of Pakistan in a botched attempt to kill Sirajuddin Haqqani, but still managed to kill a senior fundraiser for the Haqqani network.
Today, showing nearly infinite patience, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is making a new effort to get the peace talks started. He has chosen to publicly announce that he has appointed a representative to contact the Taliban and work with them to get talks started. From the Express Tribune:
In his attempt to revive the process of peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its affiliates, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif asked Samiul Haq to help in bringing the militant groups to the negotiation table, Express News reported on Tuesday.
Nawaz met the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Samiul Haq group (JUI-S) chief today for a one-on-one meeting at the Prime Minister House.
Talks with the Taliban was the main issue on the agenda and Haq assured the prime minister that he will use his influence to ensure the peace process progresses in the right direction.
Nawaz has been personally meeting various political and religious leaders in order to kick start the negotiation process with the militants.
Haq clearly knows who has been disrupting the previous attempts to get talks started. From Dawn:
The JUI-S chief told the prime minister that every time the government planned to talk peace with the militants, foreign powers tried to sabotage the process.
And just who might those foreign powers be? Especially the ones with the drones? From Geo News:
Talking to Geo News, Maulana Samiul Haq said that he met the prime minister on his request. He said to the best of his ability he would try to help resolve this issue and added that the core issue was to stall the drone attacks.
US should understand that talks with Taliban were in the interest Pakistan as well as regional peace. He said when we get ready, foreign pressures do not allow us to proceed. Thousands of Pakistanis have been martyred in the war, which is not ours, he said. He demanded that the losses incurred in North Waziristan be compensated and advised the PM to revisit the foreign policy of Pakistan.
Haq is to be congratulated for his courage in taking on the difficult task of starting the peace process. He knows what has happened to previous individuals who tried to get the process started and so he knows that he is taking on this assignment under great personal risk. After all, who can doubt that if Brennan does take out Haq with a drone, this description of Haq from the Express Tribune article linked above will be broadcast everywhere:
Samiul Haq is nicknamed the ‘Father of the Taliban’ and runs a madrassa where several Taliban leaders were educated.
I would think that while trying to start the peace talk process, Haq should stay well away from that particular madrassa.
Haq seems to be putting Brennan on notice with his public statement about foreign powers disrupting peace talks. By announcing Haq’s role and releasing photos of Haq visiting with him, Sharif appears to be putting Haq under whatever protection Pakistan’s government can afford him. The ball is clearly in Brennan’s court now and today is Terror Tuesday He can allow the peace process to start, or he can put Haq at the top of his list and drone for war once again.
Last week, I noted that the US had a perfect excuse for ending its drone strikes that are a long-running violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty because Pakistan had engaged in military action in North Waziristan to kill a number of TTP militants after a TTP suicide attack had killed Pakistani soldiers. The same pivotal town in North Waziristan where last week’s events were centered, Miranshah, made the headlines again on Christmas Day, as Barack Obama and John Brennan could not resist demonstrating to the world that the US is not a peaceful nation. A drone fired two missiles into a home near Miranshah, killing four “militants”. Those killed are widely believed to have been members of the Haqqani network (Pakistan and the Haqqani network do not attack one another the way Pakistan and the TTP do), but there are no reports of senior leaders being involved, so this may well have been a signature strike rather than a strike aimed at a particular high level militant. On Christmas. Pakistan’s government protested the strike as a violation of sovereignty, yet again.
Yes, those targeted by the US in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region are all Muslims who don’t celebrate Christmas, but there has often been a tradition in wars of ceasefires on religious holidays. There was a magical ceasefire on Christmas in World War I. Although the concept was rejected this year, there have been Ramadan ceasefires, both in Afghanistan and even in the skirmishes between Pakistan and the TTP.
Somehow, in thinking on the evil embodied by this act of death and destruction on the day on which Christians celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, I came across this terrific post that centers on a particularly apt passage from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. As pointed out in the post, the passage is spoken by Marc Anthony just after the assassination of Julius Caesar:
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
The post I linked addresses the famous phrase “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war” and should be read in its entirety. But the larger passage reads almost as if Shakespeare has foreseen the situation of a long-running period of drone attacks, especially when the drones carry Hellfire missiles. In Pakistan, “dreadful objects so familiar” have resulted in widespread PTSD among the residents who must live under the constant buzz of drones flying overhead.
Marc Anthony speaks of the attacks being out of revenge, and revenge has been a motivator for this and other strikes in Pakistan.
Shakespeare very nearly hit on the Hellfire name. Obama and Brennan would do well, though, to study up on the particular mythological figure that Shakespeare invokes with his mention of who comes “hot from hell”. A quick search gives us this on Ate:
ATE was the spirit (daimona) of delusion, infatuation, blind folly, rash action and reckless impulse who led men down the path to ruin.
How can the rash action and blind folly of repeated drone strikes lead to anything other than ruin for Obama and Brennan? Let us hope that they don’t drag the rest of us down with them.
Update: See Peterr’s comment below for the backstory of this beautiful song commemorating the Christmas ceasefire in World War I:
Not many small towns of only a few thousand people are in the news as often or as prominently as Miranshah in North Waziristan of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. Most often, it makes the news due to a drone strike carried out by the CIA. The last two days, however, have seen Miranshah and the surrounding area in the news for events that also pertain to the militants who hide out in the area, but for a distinctly different opponent of the militants.
Yesterday, five Pakistani soldiers were killed and over thirty were injured in a suicide attack:
At least five soldiers were killed and 34 wounded when a suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden car into a military checkpoint in Pakistan’s troubled northwest on Wednesday, security officials said.
The attack came in the Mir Ali area of Miranshah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal region, a hub for Taliban and al Qaeda linked militants on the Afghan border.
The TTP was quick to claim responsibility and to state that it was in response to the recent killing of their leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone strike just as the TTP was readying to enter into peace talks with Pakistan.
Today, we have news that the Pakistani military has struck back against the TTP, killing 23:
At least 23 suspected militants were killed late on Wednesday during a clash with security forces in the country’s troubled northwest, officials said.
According to a security official who requested anonymity, the suspected militants tried to ambush a convoy of security forces which was returning back from Khajuri checkpost area in Mirali Tehsil of North Waziristan tribal region.
The convoy had gone in the area to rescue soldiers who were injured in a suicide bomb attack yesterday.
Security forces retaliated with gunfire and encircled the suspects inflicting heavy casualties.
The gun-battle continued for several hours during which the 23 suspected militants were killed.
Coverage of this fight in the Express Tribune notes reports of three civilian deaths and puts the fighting at more than one site:
At least 23 suspected militants plus three civilians were killed in raids and shelling by the armed forces in North Waziristan, officials said Thursday.
Clashes erupted after the insurgents attacked a convoy of security forces which was returning after rescuing soldiers wounded in Wednesday’s bombing, the official said on condition of anonymity.
The death toll could not be verified independently because of an ongoing search operation and curfew in the area.
Earlier, local security officials said six of the suspected militants were killed during raids on two hotels.
“Security forces raided two hotels in the area close to the site of the suicide bombing and intense gunbattles left six suspected militants dead and 12 others wounded,” a local security official told AFP.
It is hard to overstate the significance of this development. One of the primary justifications cited for the US drone campaign that hits Miranshah so often is that the Pakistani military is both unwilling and unable to attack the militants on its own. Today, we see that quite the opposite is true. In response to a direct attack that killed five of its own, Pakistani military forces responded with a force large enough to kill 23 militants within 24 hours of the initial attack.
In its ongoing campaign to end CIA strikes as a violation of its sovereignty, Pakistan can point to today’s development as evidence that it is perfectly capable of taking its own actions against militant groups inside its borders.
Conversely, if the CIA had intelligent leadership, they would cite this development as a reason to end drone strikes in Pakistan.
As more details emerge on the drone strike Thursday in Yemen that hit a wedding party, it is becoming clear that the New York Times got it wrong, and those killed were mostly civilians rather than mostly suspected al Qaeda militants. A follow-up story in the Los Angeles Times on Friday put the death toll at 17, with only five of the dead having suspected al Qaeda connections. But CNN’s follow-up on Friday is even worse: they put the death toll at only 14, but they carried this statement from a Yemeni official:
“This was a tragic mistake and comes at a very critical time. None of the killed was a wanted suspect by the Yemeni government,” said a top Yemeni national security official who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to talk to media.
If we read between the lines, then, it would seem that although a few of those killed may have had al Qaeda connections, they were not of sufficiently high profile to merit being wanted by Yemen’s government.
The CNN story only gets worse:
The convoy consisted of 11 vehicles, and the officials said that four of the vehicles were targeted in the strikes. Two of the vehicles were completely damaged. Among the killed were two prominent tribal leaders within the province.
This piece of information alone seems to embody all of the moral depravity of the US drone program as it now stands. Despite all the bleating about the effort put into assuring that only militants are targeted and that every effort is made to prevent civilian casualties, there simply is no justification for proceeding with an attack that intends to target fewer than half the vehicles in a large convoy. Such an attack is virtually guaranteed to kill more than just those targeted, and as discussed above, it seems very likely that even those targeted in this strike were low level operatives instead of high level al Qaeda leaders.
Sunday saw a strong response to the attacks by Yemen’s Parliament. They voted to end drone strikes in the country. From CNN:
Yemen’s parliament Sunday called for an end to drone strikes on its territory after a U.S. missile attack mistakenly struck a wedding convoy, killing more than a dozen people.
The nearly unanimous but non-binding vote was “a strong warning” to both the United States and the government of Yemeni President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a Yemeni government official told CNN.
“The Yemeni public is angered by the drone strikes,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to talk to reporters. “The people’s representatives reflected on the tone of the streets.”
The official statement carried in the Reuters story on the vote strikes a similar position to what we have been hearing from Pakistan regarding US drone strikes there:
“Members of parliament voted to stop what drones are doing in Yemeni airspace, stressing the importance of preserving innocent civilian lives against any attack and maintaining Yemeni sovereignty,” the state news agency SABA said.
There’s that pesky issue of sovereignty again. Recall that it is a huge driver for the demonstrations by Imran Khan’s PTI party that have shut down NATO convoys on Pakistan’s northern supply route. And Khan appears to be gearing up for his protests to stage major events in Lahore and even Islamabad next week.
Writing in The Atlantic this morning, Conor Friedersdorf poses some interesting questions regarding the strike: Continue reading
At least fifteen people were killed by a US drone strike in Yemen yesterday. It is particularly difficult to get accurate information in the immediate aftermath of strikes in Yemen, and the reports being generated now conflict in several regards, but what seems to be clear on all fronts is that the convoy of vehicles that was attacked was a wedding party.
Reuters reports the targeting of the wedding party as a mistake:
Fifteen people on their way to a wedding in Yemen were killed in an air strike after their party was mistaken for an al Qaeda convoy, local security officials said on Thursday.
The officials did not identify the plane in the strike in central al-Bayda province, but tribal and local media sources said that it was a drone.
“An air strike missed its target and hit a wedding car convoy, ten people were killed immediately and another five who were injured died after being admitted to the hospital,” one security official said.
But the New York Times seems quite willing to accept claims that there were al Qaeda militants present in the convoy:
Most of the dead appeared to be people suspected of being militants linked to Al Qaeda, according to tribal leaders in the area, but there were also reports that several civilians had been killed.
The Times opened their article, however by noting that the vehicles that were hit were indeed traveling to a wedding. Yemen reporter Adam Baron noted that he also was getting reports that those killed were mostly militants:
Possible twist? (staunchly anti-drone) Qayfa contact now saying those killed wedding convoy strike were mostly local AQ fighters. #yemen
— Adam Baron (@adammbaron) December 12, 2013
That Baron got that report from a drone critic is especially interesting. But Baron went on to pose a very important queston:
What’s worse: a drone strike hitting a wedding convoy by mistake or a drone strike hitting a wedding convoy on purpose? #yemen
— Adam Baron (@adammbaron) December 12, 2013
And just to make things even more interesting, Baron tweeted this morning that he now is hearing from “tribal sources” that a teenager with US citizenship was among those killed.
The AP story carried in the Washington Post reports on the multiple accounts that exist:
There were no immediate details on who was killed in the strike, and there were conflicting reports about whether there were militants traveling with the wedding convoy.
A military official said initial information indicated the drone mistook the wedding party for an al-Qaida convoy. He said tribesmen known to the villagers were among the dead.
One of the three security officials, however, said al-Qaida militants were suspected to have been traveling with the wedding convoy.
Did you notice what AP reported the “military official” to have said? From that snippet, we see the claim that it was the drone that made the mistake in targeting, as if we already are employing drones that are capable of autonomous function. No, drones are still simply tools to deliver weapons and it was the operator flying the drone and firing the missiles who made the mistake, not the drone.
Once again, John Brennan has shown with this strike his amazing ability to carry out strikes that now and then are so depraved that they seem almost intentionally crafted to put the drone program in the worst possible light.
It’s hard to imagine how Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s travels this week could have gone any worse. Starting off with horrible optics, Hagel began his trip with a stop in Bahrain. Although it appears that he at least had enough sense not to appear in front of the cameras with him, he did meet with Bahrian’s king even though the country continues a brutal crackdown on protests, in which mass punishment and torture by the king’s forces have been documented as ongoing. Hagel did appear in front of the cameras though, to “share a laugh” with Egypt’s foreign minister (see this photo essay and scroll down) while in Bahrain, so he did manage a public appearance with a regime engaged in violent suppression of its people.
Hagel moved on to Afghanistan. The US press had already warned us ahead of the visit that he and Karzai were not scheduled to meet even though the US is in the midst of applying incredible amounts of pressure to convince Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement by the end of this year. Or perhaps by the NATO meeting in February. Or whenever. Not content to settle for a mere snub, though, Karzai went a step further in his disrespect to Hagel. Under a story with the headline “President Karzai Leaves for Iran, While Hagel Still in Kabul“, Tolo News informed us yesterday of Karzai’s latest move:
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a high-ranking delegation departed Kabul on Sunday to meet with Iranian officials, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Karzai is visiting Iran to negotiate with Iranian officials on bilateral relations between Tehran and Kabul, the Presidential Palace said in a statement.
Karzai will meet his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani today in Tehran, the statement added.
Karzai’s visit to Iran took place while the United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is visiting U.S forces in Afghanistan.
It appears that Karzai was treated quite well in Tehran:
And RT informs us that a security deal between Iran and Afghanistan now appears likely (h/t to Greg Bean for alerting me to this link via Twitter).
Think about that. Hagel came to Afghanistan with no Karzai meeting arranged and then while he was there, Karzai went to Tehran and announced a pending agreement. It can’t get much worse than that.
Or can it? Hagel’s next stop was Pakistan. He met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, where Sharif told him that drone strikes must stop. But while Hagel was there, the US “announced” that NATO shipments through Pakistan would resume since protests against drones have stopped. From the same Express Tribune article about the meeting with Sharif:
But a US defence official told reporters in Kabul that the suspension of shipments via Pakistan had been lifted because the protests had stopped, removing the threat to Nato trucks that move through the Torkham gate pass.
Except that the protests have not stopped. So it appears that the US withdrew that statement. From Dawn:
The visit came as Hagel’s deputies withdrew Sunday’s statement that said Nato shipments out of Afghanistan through Pakistan were to resume due to the end of anti-drone protests.
And as an added bonus, we have yet another incident of NATO supply trucks using the southern route in Afghanistan being attacked, so perhaps pressure is being ratcheted up on that route as well.
Perhaps it is time for Mr. Hagel to come home.
Recall that two weeks ago, John Brennan launched a drone strike in a settled area of Pakistan (rather than the remote tribal areas where most strikes take place) in the very province ruled by drone critic Imran Khan’s PTI party. Last week, Khan retaliated, with his party behind an attempt to break the cover of the CIA station chief in Islamabad. Khan also launched massive demonstrations aimed at disrupting the NATO supply route that runs through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Yesterday, the Pentagon announced that use of that route for removal of equipment from Afghanistan is being halted until it once again becomes safe for the drivers of the trucks.
Reuters was first to bring news of the interruption:
The affected route, which runs from Torkham Gate at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to the Pakistani port city of Karachi, has been crucial for the United States as it winds down its combat mission in landlocked Afghanistan and moves equipment out of the country.
The route accounts for the vast majority of ground traffic of U.S. military cargo through Pakistan and has been targeted by protesters in Pakistan angered by U.S. drone strikes.
“We are aware protests have affected one of the primary commercial transit routes between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told Reuters.
“We have voluntarily halted U.S. shipments of retrograde cargo … to ensure the safety of the drivers contracted to move our equipment,” he added, referring to shipments going out of Afghanistan.
The article notes that an alternative land route that goes through Russia and central Asia is longer and more expensive. Although shipments of supplies, especially fuel, into Afghanistan are still needed to maintain troops in Afghanistan, Wright’s statement is strangely silent on whether supply shipments via the northern route in Pakistan also have been halted. Considering that PTI activists armed with clubs have been stopping trucks to inspect their cargo to see if it is related to the troops in Afghanistan, drivers of supply shipments should be just as much at risk as those bringing equipment out of the country.
Khan’s party was quick to claim victory today:
PTI spokeswoman Shireen Mazari hailed the Pentagon’s move as a “tactical success” and said the protests would continue.
“The US decision to halt Nato supplies through Torkham doesn’t affect our protest and we will continue our protest until drone strikes are stopped,” she told news agency AFP.
Khan demanded the government block Nato supplies after a US drone strike that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud but Islamabad has shown no appetite for such a move.
Believing that this interruption will be brief, the US has called for the transport trucks to wait in holding areas in Afghanistan. Will these holding areas be the sites of the next “tactical success” for opponents of US policy?
With regard to the equipment being shipped out of Afghanistan, note that I had already commented on the move by the US away from the MRAP and to purchase nearly a billion dollars’ worth of new armored vehicles for Afghan military forces. Although many vehicles are being shipped out of the country, many more are simply being destroyed in Afghanistan. If the disruption of the transport route becomes prolonged, look for even more vehicles to be destroyed rather than removed. That process may have already started, however. While traveling last weekend, I happened to overhear a conversation on an airplane in which one party claimed to have been on the ground in Kabul recently to witness brand new MRAP’s arriving by air transport only to be moved across the airport to a site where they were dismantled to be sold as scrap.
Update: Just a few minutes after this post went live, I saw a tweet from ISAFMedia linking to this statement:
While U.S. retrograde and NATO/ISAF cargo are not currently moving through the Torkham Gate in the interest of the safety of the drivers, shipments continue to move into – and out of – Afghanistan via alternate routes.
So it appears that supplies also are not being shipped into Afghanistan via the northern route through Pakistan, just as I had speculated. My guess is that Wright emphasized the retrograde shipments merely to make the point that the disruption could slow US withdrawal.