Last week, besides pointing out the obscene fact that the US Senate approved $500 million for the US to get more involved in the Syrian civil war on the same day the UN announced a $352 million funding shortfall for feeding civilian refugees of the war, I predicted that the “training” of Syrian rebels would fail just like training in Iraq and Afghanistan but civilian deaths from the US air strikes and at the hands of the rebels would greatly aid recruiting in extremist groups like ISIS.
It turns out that ISIS recruiting shot up even on Obama’s announcement of the US effort:
At least 162 people joined the radical al Qaeda offshoot in northeast and eastern Aleppo in the week after Obama’s speech on Sept. 10, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers information on the conflict.
Islamic State has put particular pressure on rival insurgent groups in this part of Aleppo.
An additional 73 men had joined the group on Sept. 23 and 24 in the northeast Aleppo countryside since the start of the strikes, the Observatory said, bringing the total number since Sept. 10 to at least 235.
“This means these people are not scared. Even if there are air strikes, they still join,” said Rami Abdelrahman, who runs the Observatory.
And, just as could be expected from the “pinpoint” US air strikes, for which we have virtually no on-site intelligence to guide the strikes (other than reconnaissance flights by drones), we are now getting reports of civilian casualties. From Reuters yesterday:
U.S.-led air strikes hit grain silos and other targets in Islamic State-controlled territory in northern and eastern Syria overnight, killing civilians and militants, a group monitoring the war said on Monday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes hit mills and grain storage areas in the northern Syrian town of Manbij, in an area controlled by Islamic State, killing at least two civilian workers.
Isn’t that nice? Our intelligence-gathering for the air strikes can’t distinguish ISIS bases from silos used to distribute grain to starving civilians. How many new recruits will ISIS get from families whose only food supply was bombed in that strike or whose family members were killed by it?
Of course, the US military refuses to believe any evidence that it could possibly make a mistake. From the same Reuters story:
The U.S. military said on Monday an American air strike overnight targeted Islamic State vehicles in a staging area adjacent to a grain storage facility near Manbij, and added it had no evidence so far of civilian casualties.
“We are aware of media reports alleging civilian casualties, but have no evidence to corroborate these claims,” said Colonel Patrick Ryder, a spokesman at the U.S. military’s Central Command. He promised that the military would look into the report further, saying it took such matters seriously.
You betcha. I’m sure Central Command will get right on that investigation of how it killed silo workers (and see below for the military admitting that it can’t properly evaluate the effects of strikes). Just as soon as they get the next fifty or so new targets for air strikes put on their targeting lists.
Sadly, this strike on the silos is not the only instance of civilian deaths from the US strikes. The Daily Mail has more information from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights about yesterday’s strike and the overall civilian death toll from all strikes:
Mr Abdulrahman, said today: ‘These were the workers at the silos. They provide food for the people.’ The airstrikes ‘destroyed the food that was stored there’.
The group says at least 19 civilians have been killed so far in coalition airstrikes.
And, of course, the US has not acknowledged any of the previous civilian casualties, either. All they will say is that the evidence is “inconclusive”:
Earlier Monday, the Pentagon admitted that some assessments of civilian casualties were “inconclusive” since the U.S. was only using drones to assess the results of strikes from the air.
“The evidence is going to be inconclusive often. Remember we’re using [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] to determine the battle damage assessment,” Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said Monday.
A defense official told The Hill earlier this month that accurate assessments of damage from strikes are impossible without U.S. forces on the ground to exploit the attack sites, since Iraqi and Syrian partners did not have the capability.
Gosh, I don’t understand how we can have sufficient analytical ability to select targets but insufficient ability to assess the results of strikes on those targets. Sounds to me like the military is just bombing Syria for shits and giggles.
And to help contractors sell more bombs.
Karachi’s Airport has resumed operations today, but a deadly late night attack shut it down for many hours overnight. It appears that ten militants entered the airport Sunday night, most likely uniformed as airport security personnel, and killed up to 18 people before they were killed by airport security and rapidly responding military units. The TTP, Pakistan’s Taliban, has claimed responsibility for the attack. The New York Times and Reuters, however, chose to be very selective in how they reported the TTP’s claim of responsibility. Both news outlets left out the TTP’s prominent mention of the US drone strike in November that killed TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud in describing the TTP’s reasons for the attack. By contrast, AP and the Washington Post included the TTP’s reference to the drone strike.
Here is how the Post article opens:
Heavily armed gunmen disguised as security forces attacked Karachi’s international airport Sunday night, killing at least 18 people before government troops regained control early Monday. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault, which appeared to dash hopes for peace talks.
The government said all 10 of the attackers were killed in more than five hours of fighting at the airport, which would bring the total number of deaths to 28. A doctor at Karachi’s Jinnah Hospital said 18 bodies were brought to the morgue there and that 11 of the dead were airport security personnel, the Associated Press reported. The bodies of the attackers remained in police custody.
In a statement Monday, Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, said the attack was in response to recent Pakistani military airstrikes in northwestern Pakistan and to a U.S. drone strike in November that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the radical Islamist group.
Shahid added the attack should be viewed as a sign that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to engage the group in peace talks had failed.
“The message to the Pakistani government is that we are still alive to react to the killings of innocent people in bomb attacks on their villages,” said Shahid, adding the attack followed months of intensive planning.
The AP article twice mentions the attack as in response to the drone killing of Mehsud, and although it mentions Pakistan’s airstrikes in the tribal regions after peace talks broke off, it doesn’t tie those air strikes to the TTP reasons for the attack. The Times and Reuters, in contrast, only tie the attack to the air strikes and not to the Mehsud drone strike. From the Times:
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility Monday for a ferocious overnight assault in Karachi that stretched into the morning in which gunmen infiltrated Pakistan’s largest international airport and waged an extended firefight against security forces that resulted in 29 deaths and shook the country’s already fragile sense of security.
The attack “was a response to the recent attacks by the government,” Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said by telephone. “We will continue carrying out such attacks.” He insisted, however, that the group was seeking to resuscitate peace talks with the government.
And from Reuters:
The Pakistani Taliban, an alliance of insurgent groups fighting to topple the government and set up a sharia state, said they carried out the attack in response to air strikes on their strongholds near the Afghan border and suggested their mission was to hijack a passenger plane.
“It is a message to the Pakistan government that we are still alive to react over the killings of innocent people in bomb attacks on their villages,” said Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman.
“The main goal of this attack was to damage the government, including by hijacking planes and destroying state installations.”
Pakistan’s Dawn News gives the broader range of TTP explanations:
The TTP further said: “It’s just the beginning, we have taken revenge for one (Mehsud), we have to take revenge for hundreds.”
Shahidullah Shahid moreover dismissed the Pakistani government’s peace talks methodology as a “tool of war”.
Shahidullah Shahid said the attack was planned much earlier but had been postponed due to the peace talks.
The TTP spokesman in a statement issued to the media said that the attack was also carried out to avenge the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike.
“We carried out this attack on the Karachi airport and it is a message to the Pakistani government that we are still alive to react over the killings of innocent people in bomb attacks on their villages,” TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said.
Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for the army’s air strikes in areas along the Afghan border where the insurgents are based.
By citing only Pakistan’s air strikes against the TTP, the New York Times and Reuters portray the Karachi airport attack as a problem that is solely due to politics internal to Pakistan. That is a gross misrepresentation of the situation, as the US drone strike on Hakimullah Mehsud came at an extremely critical time when the peace talks first began to look like a concrete possibility. That US strike was a huge external intervention by the US and clearly put Pakistan on a path to even more bloodshed. At least the Washington Post and AP allow their readers to see that blowback for US intervention played a significant role in this attack.
Aside from a May 14 drone strike described as being on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, there have been no documented US drone strikes in Pakistan since December 26 of last year. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism links this break in drone strikes to the peace talks that Pakistan has been engaged in with the Taliban. On the surface, then, one might expect this week’s offensive carried out by Pakistani troops in the North Waziristan stronghold of the terrorists targeted by the US to signal both the end of the peace talks and the opportunity for the CIA to re-start its drone campaign. As the New York Times reports, the peace process does appear to be dead:
Analysts cautioned that the surge in fighting did not appear to be the start of a much-anticipated military offensive across North Waziristan — a longstanding demand of American officials. But it did appear to spell an effective end to faltering peace talks between the government and the Pakistani Taliban.
“The talks will fizzle out if this campaign continues,” said Talat Masood, a retired general and political analyst. “The military leadership feels the militants aren’t serious about talking — and I think the civilian leadership is starting to see that too.”
But note that even though this isn’t seen as the beginning of a major offensive, Pakistani troops are now in control of Miram Shah:
Pakistani soldiers seized control of a neighborhood dominated by foreign Islamist militants in the North Waziristan tribal district on Thursday as part of the most concerted military operation in the area in several years, a senior security official said.
Over 1,000 troops, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, moved after dawn into a neighborhood on the edge of the district’s main town, Miram Shah, that had become a sanctuary for Uzbek and Chinese fighters, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
If Miram Shah and its surrounds are now under the control of the Pakistani military, then one of the Obama administration’s criteria for use of drones could well no longer apply to the area. See this post by bmaz on the issue of “Kill or Capture”. While the central issue in that analysis is the decision to kill US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, we see that one of the justifications trotted out by the Obama administration was that al-Awlaki could not be captured to be brought to trial. The claim could well have been bogus, as bmaz states:
Who says there was no way between the combined capabilities of the US and Yemen Awlaki could not at least be attempted to be captured?
But with the Pakistani military now controlling Miram Shah, shouldn’t they be in a position to capture terrorists that the US wants to be taken out of action? That is, if they haven’t already been killed by the offensive:
“Troops used explosives to blow up more than a hundred houses belonging to militants in Machis Camp,” an intelligence official in Miramshah said. He added that artillery and helicopter gunships were targeting militant hideouts while troops on the ground had begun a door to door search operation for militants.
The military also targeted suspected militant hideouts in the nearby town of Mirali. “The troops have destroyed about 300 shops in the main Mir Ali bazaar,” a local official told AFP.
A spokesman for Inter Services Public Relations insisted the security forces were carrying out a ‘sanitisation’ operation in response to heavy shelling from militants on security installations in Miramshah following Wednesday’s air strikes in North Waziristan.
Today’s figures put the death toll in this week’s operation at more than 80.
It remains to be seen whether the CIA will re-start drone strikes around Miram Shah. While the peace talk process appears to be dead, if the military continues to hold some of the prime territory where US targets have resided, carrying strikes on those sites may be subject to a different prohibition.
In what is virtually certain to be a new example of why he continues not to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to react with anger toward the US strike this morning that killed five Afghan soldiers in an outpost in the Charkh District of Logar Province. Already, it is being pointed out that the US had to know about the location of the outpost. From the Washington Post:
“The coalition knows the location of every Afghan outpost,” said Abdul Wali, the head of the Logar Provincial Council. “How can such incidents happen?”
But BBC points out that it is even worse than that:
District governor Khalilullah Kamal, who has visited the scene, said the strike was carried out by a US drone.
“The post is totally destroyed,” he told the AFP news agency. “The Americans used to be in that post, but since they left the ANA [Afghan National Army] took over.”
Recall that in the incident where the US killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border checkpoint in 2011, at least parts of the facility that was attacked appeared to be makeshift structures that easily could have been mistaken for insurgent encampments. That clearly is not the case in the current situation, since the facility was built by and previously manned by the US. It seems to me that there is a good chance that the mistake in this case may have been that the US believed the post to have been taken over by the Taliban when it in fact was still manned by the ANA. Given the multiple reports that drones are often spotted in the area, we are left to wonder if the drones spotted a pattern of activity that prompted the airstrike. Otherwise, since the Afghans claim they did not call in a strike, we are left to wonder just why the strike was carried out and what the mission was believed to be.
Details are still coming out on the incident, with some stories claiming the attack came from a drone and others saying it was an airstrike by manned aircraft. The New York Times contributes this on the question:
A spokesman for the American military said that the incident did not involve a drone, but rather manned aircraft. He did not provide further details.
Even though he says in his statement that the strike was carried out by a drone, the information quoted above from the district governor about the post being “totally destroyed” sounds to me more like the damage that would come from multiple manned aircraft equipped with multiple rockets and bombs, especially if the post consisted of multiple buildings.
I have seen no statements on the incident attributed to Karzai yet. ISAF already issued this embarrassed acknowledgement:
We can confirm that at least five Afghan National Army personnel were accidentally killed this morning during an operation in eastern Afghanistan.
An investigation is being conducted at this time to determine the circumstances that led to this unfortunate incident.
Our condolences go out to the families of the ANA soldiers who lost their lives and were wounded.
We value the strong relationship with our Afghan partners, and we will determine what actions will be taken to ensure incidents like this do not happen again.
Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi is quoted by Reuters:
“We condemn the attack on the Afghan National Army in Logar,” said Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Karzai. “The president has ordered an investigation.”
But in that Reuters article, Kamal, the district governor, seems to contradict some of the information he gave to BBC:
“Right now a discussion in the province is going on between Afghan officials and foreign forces to find out the reason for this attack,” he said, describing the attack as having targeted a new outpost of the Afghan army.
Is Kamal claiming the outpost is new to the ANA since they just took it over from ISAF, or is he saying it is a new one they established and not one previously manned by the US, as he said to BBC? If it is the latter, then it will be necessary to review whether and how the ANA informed the US of the location of the facility.
It is very interesting that the US would move so quickly to claim an airstrike instead of a drone in the statement to the Times. Given Karzai’s previous reactions to US airstrikes that have killed civilians, it is virtually guaranteed that he will reach a new high of outrage over this incident. There was a surge of nationalism over the incident where 21 troops were killed by the Taliban recently in Kunar (see the state funeral footage in this post), so look for Karzai to play off those sentiments in turning that anger now toward the US rather than the Taliban.
As Pakistan traverses a difficult path, trying to negotiate peace with militant groups under a shaky ceasefire, provocative statements have come out this week from leading figures in the process accusing the US of not wanting the talks to succeed and even suggesting that the US would actively try to undermine them.
Today, we have this very provocative statement from Maulana Samiul Haq, who has played a prominent role in getting the peace talks under way:
Attempts will be made to sabotage the efforts of the intermediary committees with regards to the peace talks, stated Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Samiul Haq (JUI-S) chief Maulana Samiul Haq while speaking to the media in Nowshera on Wednesday.
He said that “the third enemy” will definitely do something to create obstacles, adding that USA, India and Afghanistan do not want the peace negotiations to be successful.
Dawn’s coverage of the press conference describes Haq’s statement in this way:
Haq, chief of the Taliban negotiating committee, told reporters after the meeting that the Taliban committee was seeking a meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He praised the Taliban for announcing the ceasefire and said he had asked the militants to track down whoever was responsible for the recent violence.
Moreover, he also said that the announcement of a ceasefire from both sides was a major progress and that the Taliban had been asked to probe into those responsible for recent attacks.
The chief Taliban mediator added that Afghanistan, India and the United States wanted the dialogue process to fail.
He further said that the government and Taliban should jointly unveil the enemy.
It would seem that Haq is following his own advice here, because in the aftermath of Monday’s attack on the court in Islamabad, Haq had said this:
The government and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) should not blame each other for any attack and should look for “the third enemy,” stated Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Samiul Haq (JUI-S) chief Maulana Samiul Haq while talking to the media in Islamabad.
So on Monday it appears that Haq called on Pakistan to identify the “third enemy” and then today he stated that the US, India and Afghanistan fill that role.
I had missed it in the immediate aftermath of Monday’s attack, but Imran Khan did not wait to identify the US as the enemy of peace in Pakistan:
Imran Khan, chief of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, said on Monday that some elements, including the United States, were against peace in the country and an operation in Waziristan region was not in favour of Pakistan, DawnNews reported.
I’m guessing that John Brennan’s drone trigger finger is getting very itchy about now and that he is looking into how he can break the current lull in US drone strikes. Especially considering that the DOJ has now been asked to investigate CIA spying on Senate Inteligence Committee staff computers and Brennan’s known history of using drone strikes in Pakistan as a political retaliation tool, I don’t see how he can keep himself in check any longer.
Ken Dilanian has a very interesting article in the Los Angeles Times outlining the latest failure in Congress’ attempts to exert oversight over drones. Senator Carl Levin had the reasonable idea of calling a joint closed session of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees so that the details of consolidating drone functions under the Pentagon (and helping the CIA to lose at least one of its paramilitary functions) could be smoothed out. In the end, “smooth” didn’t happen:
An effort by a powerful U.S. senator to broaden congressional oversight of lethal drone strikes overseas fell apart last week after the White House refused to expand the number of lawmakers briefed on covert CIA operations, according to senior U.S. officials.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, held a joint classified hearing Thursday with the Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA and military drone strikes against suspected terrorists.
But the White House did not allow CIA officials to attend, so military counter-terrorism commanders testified on their own.
But perhaps the White House was merely retaliating for an earlier slight from Congress:
In May, the White House said it would seek to gradually move armed drone operations to the Pentagon. But lawmakers added a provision to the defense spending bill in December that cut off funds for that purpose, although it allows planning to continue.
Dilanian parrots the usual framing of CIA vs JSOC on drone targeting:
Levin thought it made sense for both committees to share a briefing from generals and CIA officials, officials said. He was eager to dispel the notion, they said, that CIA drone operators were more precise and less prone to error than those in the military.
The reality is that targeting in both the CIA and JSOC drone programs is deeply flawed, and the flaws lead directly to civilian deaths. I have noted many times (for example see here and here and here) when John Brennan-directed drone strikes (either when he had control of strike targeting as Obama’s assassination czar at the White House or after taking over the CIA and taking drone responsibility with him) reeked of political retaliation rather than being logically aimed at high value targets. But those examples pale in comparison to Brennan’s “not a bake sale” strike that killed 40 civilians immediately after Raymond Davis’ release or his personal intervention in the peace talks between Pakistan and the TTP. JSOC, on the other hand, has input from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which, as Marcy has noted, has its own style when it comes to “facts”. On top of that, we have the disclosure from Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald earlier this week that JSOC will target individual mobile phone SIM cards rather than people for strikes, without confirming that the phone is in possession of the target at the time of the strike. The flaws inherent in both of these approaches lead to civilian deaths that fuel creation of even more terrorists among the survivors.
Dilanian doesn’t note that the current move by the White House to consolidate drones at the Pentagon is the opposite of what took place about a year before Brennan took over the CIA, when his group at the White House took over some control of JSOC targeting decisions, at least with regard to signature strikes in Yemen.
In the end, though, it’s hard to see how getting all drone functions within the Pentagon and under Senate Armed Services Committee oversight will improve anything. Admittedly, the Senate Intelligence Committee is responsible for the spectacular failure of NSA oversight and has lacked the courage to release its thorough torture investigation report, but Armed Services oversees a bloated Pentagon that can’t even pass an audit (pdf). In the end, it seems to me that this entire pissing match between Congress and the White House is over which committee(s) will ultimately be blamed for failing oversight of drones.
Update February 14: Khan has been freed! The Express Tribune reports that he was beaten and tortured, but is now free after being blindfolded and pushed out of a van.
In a very interesting development, Al Jazeera is reporting that disappeared drone activist Karim Khan had planned to testify before the International Criminal Court in The Hague on his trip to Europe which had been planned to begin on February 15. Khan was abducted from his home on February 5 and it is widely believed that Pakistan’s intelligence service was behind the abduction.
Khan made a very dramatic entrance into the world of drone activism in November of 2010, when he sued the US for $500 million after his son and brother were killed in a drone strike in their home village of Mir Ali in North Waziristan. In the lawsuit, Khan named the Islamabad CIA station chief:
A North Waziristan tribesman, whose brother and teenage son were killed in a drone strike last year, said on Monday that he would sue all those US officials supposedly in control of the predator’s operations in Pakistan.
Karim Khan, a local journalist from Mirali town of the lawless tribal district, had sent a $500 million claim for damages to the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, CIA chief Leon Panetta and its station head in Islamabad Jonathan Banks.
Khan described how Banks’ activities lead to the deaths of innocent civilians:
He told journalists that CIA Islamabad’s chief Jonathan Banks buys information from his local agents in the area to guide the drone strike.
However, he added that this information is wrong and misleading in most occasions causing the deaths of many innocent tribesmen.
Khan’s attorney throughout this process has been Shahzad Akbar. Akbar also represents Noor Khan, whose case in the Peshawar High Court resulted in the ruling that US drone strikes within Pakistan are illegal and constitute war crimes.
The fact that Akbar has gotten this ruling seems to me to add significance to the Al Jazeera report, which appears to cite Akbar as the source of the disclosure that Khan was to testify at the ICC:
A Pakistani court has ordered the country’s intelligence agencies to produce a prominent anti-drone campaigner, who was abducted last week, by February 20, or to categorically state that they are not holding him, the activist’s lawyers say.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Wednesday, Shehzad Akbar, the head of Karim Khan’s legal team, called Khan’s abduction from his Rawalpindi home late on February 5 “a signature government abduction”, alleging that Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agencies were responsible for the disappearance.
Khan had been due to fly to Europe on February 15, on a trip that would see him testify before members of the European Parliament in Brussels, UK legislators in London and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on the US’ use of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The court which issued the ruling for the ISI to present Khan was the Lahore High Court:
Lahore High Court (LHC) Rawalpindi bench on Wednesday issued notices to security agencies to submit their reply in a case related to disappearance of an anti-drone activist as it ordered to present the man at the next hearing.
LHC Justice Shehzad Ahmad Khan was hearing a plea filed by the family of Karim Khan, who went missing a few days back.
During the proceedings, the police denied their involvement in the disappearance. “Khan was picked up by persons wearing police uniform but he is not in our custody,” the police report claimed.
On this, the court sought reply from all intelligence agencies and ordered them to present Khan on February 20, the next date of hearing.
But the court had actually called for Khan to be produced yesterday, as well: Continue reading
After a cancelled meeting earlier in the week, peace talks between Pakistan’s government and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a Taliban group that has been carrying out terrorist attacks against targets inside Pakistan, have gotten underway. Although Reuters reported that the meeting was in an undisclosed Islamabad location and Dawn reported that the meeting was in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa House in Islamabad, it appears that both stories have elements of truth. From the Express Tribune:
The meeting of government and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) peace talks committees started at an undisclosed location in Islamabad at 2:24pm on Thursday, Express News reported.
The meeting later shifted to Pakhtunkhwa House.
The Dawn story reports that there was a “cordial atmosphere”, but adds another very important point:
Sources said that talks were being held in a cordial atmosphere and that negotiations would now be continued on a daily basis.
With daily meetings planned, it sounds like the talks could be more than a mere formality.
Returning to the Dawn story, we have the line-up of negotiators for each side:
The government’s negotiators include Irfan Siddiqui, special assistant to the prime minister and coordinator of the committee, Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistan ambassador to Afghanistan, Peshawar-based journalist Rahimullah Yousufzai and retired Major Amir Khan.
Negotiators from the TTP’s side include Maulana Samiul Haq, Maulana Abdul Aziz and Professor Mohammad Ibrahim.
The TTP had initially also nominated Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan and former Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) lawmaker Mufti Kifayatullah in their committee. However, both later refused to be part of the committee.
Although none of the stories point it out, I find it very interesting that at least part of today’s discussions were held at Khyber Pakhtunkhwa House. Even though Imran Khan declined to be a part of the negotiating team for the TTP, recall that his PTI party controls the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. After a bit more poking around, I found this version of an AFP story on the meetings that has a photo of the outside of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa House. Note the emblem on the gate in the photo. It clearly is the emblem of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and not of Pakistan’s government (see here), suggesting that Khan’s provincial government may well be playing the role of a host or facilitator for the talks. There also appears to be a restaurant in Islamabad with the name Khyber Pakhtunkhwa House, but the AFP photo appears to rule out the restaurant.
An official speaking to Reuters also added to the importance of the meetings:
“The progress of the talks will be submitted to the prime minister,” the government official, who declined to be named, as he is not authorized to comment on progress of the talks, told Reuters.
Recall that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had the establishment peace talks with the Taliban as one of his main campaign promises. Note also that Imran Khan made ending US drone strikes one his main campaign issues. With Sharif monitoring the talks and Khan providing a venue (at least for today), it then becomes very interesting that the spokesperson for Pakistan’s Foreign Office today said that the announced US slowdown on drone strikes is not enough. She stated that the strikes have to end altogether. Although Sharif’s government has called for an end to drone strikes several times in the past, reiterating it today could well be important in the context of the talks and Khan’s potential role as a mediator of sorts.
It seems that Mike Rogers lately is aiming to take over the Emptywheel blog. When he’s not yapping about criminalizing journalism or dissembling about Congressional briefings on the Patriot Act renewal, he’s putting out bloodthirsty endorsements of drone violence. When we last heard from him on the drone front, he was joining the mad rush to come up with the most damning indictment of Hakimullah Mehsud after the US disrupted Pakistan’s plans to start peace talks the very next day with a Taliban group headed by Mehsud. Yesterday, Rogers used a hearing of his House Intelligence Committee as a venue in which to pitch a tantrum over the US daring to adjust its drone policy, leading to fewer strikes.
Now, almost exactly three months after the Mehsud drone strike, we see the prospect for peace talks between Pakistan and the Taliban disrupted again. As I mentioned yesterday, Taliban negotiators fear that Pakistan’s government may be planning to scuttle the talks in order to launch an offensive against the Taliban in tribal areas, which might also play into a desire by Sharif’s government to be in line for counterterrorism funds which the US might not be spending in Afghanistan.
The Washington Post has Rogers’ tirade. First, there is news of a pause in drone strikes in Pakistan:
The Obama administration has sharply curtailed drone strikes in Pakistan after a request from the government there for restraint as it pursues peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, according to U.S. officials.
“That’s what they asked for, and we didn’t tell them no,” one U.S. official said. The administration indicated that it will still carry out strikes against senior al-Qaeda targets, if they become available, and move to thwart any direct, imminent threat to U.S. persons.
Concern about Pakistani political sensitivities provides one explanation for the absence of strikes since December, the longest pause in the CIA’s drone campaign since a six-week lull in 2011, after an errant U.S. air assault killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border post, triggering a diplomatic crisis.
Oooh, look! There’s Marcy’s favorite word again, “imminent“. But this lull in drone strikes, coupled with the explanation offered in the Post, tells us that no suitable al Qaeda targets with credible plans against the US presented themselves in Pakistan’s tribal areas for over a month. That didn’t deter Rogers; he’s upset that any potential targets aren’t blasted immediately: Continue reading
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.