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PAKISTAN: Watching Where the Drones Now Go

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, May 5 2011 (IPS) - “They should wrap up and leave!” says cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, who has been waging a campaign to put an end to the U.S. and NATO presence in the region.

“Their target has been achieved; Osama bin Laden is no more, so there is no reason for them to stay on,” he told IPS over the phone.

Bin Laden was killed in a covert U.S. mission on May 2 in the hill station of Abbottabad in the Hazara region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, just a two-hour drive north of the federal capital Islamabad.

In a dramatic 40-minute air assault, U.S. Navy Seals, ostensibly having crossed over from Afghanistan aboard four helicopters, targeted a house just a few streets from the Pakistan Military Academy. Bin Laden was reportedly shot in the head and died. His body was later buried at sea.

Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-Insaf (PTI) party, believes bin Laden’s death will not stop the U.S. from launching the drone attacks that his party has been fighting. Drones are unmanned planes sent out to gather intelligence data and target supposed terrorist lairs.

The U.S. launched ten drone strikes from 2004 to 2007, and 226 from 2008 to 2011. Some 2,000 people have been killed in the drone attacks.

From Apr. 23 to 24, Khan led a sit-in in Peshawar to block North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) containers from entering Afghanistan, a strategic choice of venue that helped attract thousands to his cause.

Khan said his party’s struggle would continue. “We will block routes used by NATO to send supplies to its troops in Afghanistan if there is another drone attack.”

Khan expects a “big backlash” from those who hold bin Laden in “high esteem” even in his death. At the same time, he believes there will be more pressure exerted on Pakistan for protecting and harbouring terrorists, as bin Laden’s death has fuelled suspicion of the Pakistani administration’s collusion with extremists.

The Pakistani government will have to account for the huge support given to President Asif Ali Zardari, Khan said. “The perception out there is that we have been protecting (bin Laden),” Khan said.

President Zardari, talking to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, has dismissed this as mere conjecture. “Such baseless speculation may make exciting cable news, but it doesn’t reflect fact,” Zardari said, calling Pakistan “the world’s greatest victim of terrorism.”

The Pakistani president also called bin Laden the “source of the greatest evil of the new millennium” in a May 3 Washington Post article.

Yet it seems inconceivable to anyone that the world’s most wanted man comfortably ensconced himself in a town side by side with retired generals and one of the most prestigious military academies.

An editorial in the English-language Daily Times warned, “How he (bin Laden) was able to hide there without any action on our part is going to be a hard sell to the Americans. So far, we have been milking the same excuse: joint intelligence and a willingness on our part in counter-terror operations led to this victory.”

Senior journalist Najam Sethi, editor of the Friday Times, concurs with Khan that drone attacks will continue, but said that to get an idea of which way the wind will blow, it is important to see who these attacks will target now.

“If it’s Al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban, then it means (the drone attack) has the tacit support of the Pakistan army,” Sethi said. Pakistan has long looked the other way as drones pounded tribal regions, killing civilians as well.

But if the drones don’t target the Haqqani network, then it means Pakistan has sealed a deal in exchange for bin Laden and was fully in the loop on that front, Sethi added. The Haqqani, a terrorist group aligned with Al-Qaeda based in North Waziristan, is the biggest threat to the U.S. and NATO forces. Pakistan has provided sanctuary to the network, much to the chagrin of the U.S.

On the other hand, argues Sethi, if the Haqqani network is targeted then it means Pakistan did not have anything to do with eliminating bin Laden and the Americans had their own way.

“We have to monitor the U.S. media and senior U.S. officials like Hillary Clinton. The media will be fed by the latter,” he told IPS.

Sethi further said that in the coming days, Pakistan’s role in bin Laden’s death will become clearer. But one thing is clear to him even now, he said: “This government has no control over its foreign policy and the army is running the show.”

However, he is of the opinion that while the U.S. wanted to score “brownie points” for carrying out this operation and Pakistan didn’t want to get involved – bin Laden being a semi-hero, and fearing bloody retribution in the aftermath – it would have been better had the Pakistan administration publicly come out clean and proclaimed this to be a joint operation.

“They should have been upfront and owned that he was a terrorist,” said Sethi. At the same time, Pakistan must also understand that it doesn’t help to choose militants they want to root out and ones they want to protect.

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