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US and Pakistan locked in a ‘drone marriage’

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times/Hong Kong, an analyst for RT and TomDispatch, and a frequent contributor to websites and radio shows ranging from the US to East Asia.

Published time: October 24, 2013 13:58
Pakistani protesters shout anti-US slogans during a demonstraion in Karachi on October 23, 2013, against US drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal region. (AFP Photo / Asif Hassan)

Obama didn’t even mention “drones” when talking to the media after his meeting with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. So is it all Islamabad’s fault? Not really.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hit his meeting with US President Barack Obama in the White House with an overwhelming priority; please, Mr. President, stop your drone war in my country.

Behind closed doors this Wednesday, Sharif may have stressed Hellfire missile logic made no sense even under the wobbly framework of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) – which the Obama administration, in trademark newspeak, has rebranded Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). He may have said OCO-enabled droning is in fact the biggest obstacle to peace in Pakistan. 

This is the official White House spin on what Sharif and Obama discussed. It’s not exactly uplifting. The droning is scheduled to go on. Obama didn’t mention “drones” when talking to the media; only vague platitudes about “respecting Pakistan’s sovereignty” and telling Sharif should “check these incidents inside Pakistan and stopping the export of terrorism.” But this does not mean Islamabad blew the meeting.

Double tap and hang five

Just before the Obama-Sharif summit, Amnesty International released a devastating report  not only questioning the trademark Obama administration legalese supporting the drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas, but also stating the obvious; those responsible – from joystick operators in the Nevada desert to the White House – may have to stand trial for war crimes.

And this is not even the most damning report already published. Compare it to the September 2012 joint investigation by Stanford Law School and the New York University School of Law, Living Under Drones,  which concluded that only 2% of those incinerated by a Hellfire missile were “terrorists.” Many were victims of the dreaded “double tap” - the second strike that invariably kills scores of civilian onlookers and rescue workers.  

Miram Shah, in the Pakistani tribal areas, only 16 kilometers from the Afghan border, qualifies as the drone capital of the world. In Miram Shah, Hellfire missiles have incinerated, among others, a bakery, a school for girls and a foreign currency market. The Pakistani Army disabled the local cell network, and the Taliban closed Internet cafes; too many young guns watching porn. The Obama administration maintains the Hellfire feast is “surgical” and “contained” – and has killed “dozens” of al-Qaeda and Taliban. To Sharif, Obama at best admitted “mistakes were made.”  

Sharif, in principle, holds a strong position in Pakistan's National Assembly, mostly representing the powerful, heavily populated Punjab (from which, incidentally, most of the Pakistani Army comes from). He has called an “all parties conference” to try to solve Pakistan’s terrorism dilemma. That implies talking to the Taliban. 

The leader of the Taliban (or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, to give the organization its full name), Hakimullah Mehsud, has made it very clear where he is coming from.  

Essentially, the Taliban regards Islamabad as a bunch of infidels, and American stooges to boot; that’s why they are at war. It's as if Mehsud had had access to this report, according to which Islamabad has “secretly” backed the CIA drone offensive.

Pakistani security personnel examine a crashed American surveillance drone some two kilometres inside Pakistani territory in the town of Chaman in the insurgency-hit Baluchistan province, on August 25, 2011. (AFP Photo / Asghar Achakzai)

What the Taliban wants is Sharia law, which by the way the absolute majority of Pakistan’s population rejects.
To make it even more complicated, no one knows for sure if the Taliban (which denies it) or some rogue faction is behind a recent wave of suicide and car bombings, including a horrific attack on Qissa Khwani bazaar – the Storyteller’s Market – in Peshawar, the queen of Pashtun cities.

The fact remains that what’s happening now is just a prelude of the jockeying for position ahead of the US alleged withdrawal from Afghanistan in late 2014.  

After meeting with Sharif, Obama’s cryptic emphasis of being “confident” of a solution “that is good for Afghanistan, but also helps to protect Pakistan over the long term” only obfuscates what is already an intractable question.  
The simplistic logic in Washington is that “stability” in Pakistan after 2014 will “protect” Afghanistan from becoming a jihadist paradise again.

At the same time, Washington and Islamabad dream of some sort of power-sharing between whoever succeeds Hamid Karzai in Kabul and the Afghan Taliban. And that would make the Afghanistan-Pakistan cross-border jihad magically vanish.  

What this rosy scenario forgets is that the key issue is not jihad, but what the armed Pashtuns on both sides of the artificial, British-invented border want.  

The Afghan Taliban want to get back to power (and may have quite a good shot at it). The Pakistani Taliban want Sharia law (it won’t happen) and don’t have the slightest chance of getting to power. As for the US “managing” what goes on simultaneously in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that’s the biggest joke of the 21st century.  

Look who’s talking

So let’s grab a cup of green tea, as they do in Peshawar, and see who’s talking to whom. The Obama administration, following the Pentagon’s most ardent wishes, is praying to reach a security deal with Karzai – which would imply US “forces” on the ground. No wonder Taliban supremo Mullah Omar has already said this is a no-no.

Plan B is some sub-deal reached as part of the ongoing Washington-Tehran honeymoon, assuming it lasts; that would imply a strong Iranian presence in post-NATO Afghanistan, and once again no political space for the Taliban.   

Islamabad, for its part, wants to talk to the Pakistani Taliban – but they aren’t talking. At the same time, Islamabad is terrified that India will have even more influence in post-NATO Afghanistan.  

In this vein, Islamabad would not be exactly unhappy if the Taliban – their former 1990s clients – completely monopolized power in post-NATO Afghanistan. The key problem remains the Pakistani Taliban. If the talking in Afghanistan is messy, in Pakistan it’s non-existent. The only victory option for Islamabad would be to convince Obama to end the drone war; and have the Pakistani Army smash the Pakistani Taliban by itself, or give them whatever they want in the Waziristans. It’s not bound to happen.   

A Pakistani youth from outlawed Islamic hard line group Jamaat ud Dawa (JD) holds a banner of a US drone during a protest in Lahore against drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas in Lahore on July 5, 2013. (AFP Photo / Arif Ali)

And here’s where Washington’s true agenda is revealed. Whatever happens, Islamabad will be deemed incapable of helping to “stabilize” Afghanistan, and even itself. So what’s a benign superpower to do? It must, selflessly, remain “involved” in Af-Pak – like, forever.   

In a nutshell; Mr. Sharif goes to Washington to talk about no drones, less aid and more trade – as in an open door especially for Pakistani textiles (it’s not gonna happen). Obama only wants to talk about terrorism and a vague “stability” following the 2014 US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Compare it with Sharif’s summer visit to Beijing. Pakistan’s economy is an absolute disaster. It badly needs to solve its power and energy shortages before even dreaming of any economic progress. Sharif goes to Beijing and gets Chinese economic commitments in every field from energy to infrastructure. He even boasts, “the economic corridor taking off from Kashgar [in Xinjiang] to Gwadar [in the Indian Ocean] is a game changer…This is the time for both countries to move forward to a faster speed.” 

As far as Sharif’s US trip is concerned, that’s more like parking lot speed. Americans are shooting guns at drones. 

Even if the Kalashnikov-happy Pakistani Taliban adopted the practice, that would be far from ending Sharif’s problems.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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