Bigger role for US CIA drones in Pakistan
Bruce Loudon, South Asia correspondent | October 28, 2008
TWENTY people were killed last night in a missile strike by CIA Predator drone aircraft inside Pakistan amid reports that Washington is intensifying its aerial bombardment of the country after being forced to back away from plans to send in ground forces.
The attack - the 18th in the past few weeks - targeted what was described as a "militant compound" close to Wana, the main town of the South Waziristan tribal agency that is the fiefdom of top jihadi commander Baitullah Mehsud - a man closely linked to al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.
The latest strike and others carried out by the CIA were described last night by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani as "disastrous".
"Such actions are proving counter-productive to (the Government's) efforts to isolate the extremists and militants from the tribal population which is involved in the formation of tribal lashkars (armies)," Mr Gilani said.
In Islamabad yesterday, the first serious moves at peace talks with the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan began when a tribal jirga (assembly) convened at the instigation of both governments.
The jirga brings together more than 50 tribal elders from both sides of the Durand Line that notionally divides the two countries, and is seen as a modest first attempt to begin negotiations with the militants.
Participants said the viability of peace talks was likely to form the basis of the discussions, with strong opposition certain to emerge against US policy, including the Predator drone strikes, as well as the presence ofUS and other coalition forces in Afghanistan.
A leading participant, former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan Rustam Shah Mohmand, said it would be impossible to deal with the Taliban as long as Western forces remained in Afghanistan.
Sources close to the jirga said the latest Predator strike, and reports that Washington was intensifying its aerial bombardment, were likely to reinforce sentiment in favour of the militants and make it even more difficult to achieve peace.
Washington appears to take a different view. The New York Times reported yesterday that the CIA had intensified Predator strikes in the region after objections from Islamabad forced it to retreat from its plan to send ground forces in.
According to the paper, Washington is said to believe that Pakistan regards the Predator strikes as "less objectionable" in terms of violating the country's sovereignty than ground attacks.
A Bush administration official told the Times: "There's a balance between respecting full Pakistani sovereignty, even in places where they're not capable of exercising that sovereignty, and the need for our force protection."
As with most of the previous attacks, yesterday's strike appeared to have failed to hit high value targets, initial reports said. Just one of the 18 attacks carried out in recent weeks is said to have killed a major al-Qa'ida figure. The rest claimed mostly civilian lives, provoking greater hostility towards Washington.