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     Volume 8 Issue 74 | June 19, 2009 |

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The Enigma
that is Drone

Haroon Rashid

US Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard
Holbrooke and the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Pakistan has asked the United States for drone technology so that it can fly pilot-less planes itself for carrying out strikes on suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts in the country's rugged mountainous region bordering Afghanistan. Our democratic government has been from day one at its wits' end trying to deal with drone attacks on Pakistani soil. On one hand, it continues to pull the wool over the public's eyes by denying its involvement in such attacks, and on the other hand its senior functionaries have made a habit of issuing tactless statements on this sensitive issue.

More often than not embarrassing comments from the officials on high leave people reeling from shock. The latest in a series of indiscreet public utterances on drone attacks by the top authorities is a point raised recently by our prime minister. Talking to reporters at a stone-laying ceremony in Lahore, he put his foot in when he said: "If drone attacks are necessary, the United States should provide us with the drone technology so that we can carry out these attacks ourselves."

Is the prime minister not suggesting that it's for the US to decide what course of action Pakistan must take in its own soil and against its own people. Also, implicit in his statement was admittance of a common perception that Pakistan is fighting an American war, although the authorities here have said umpteen times that the country is fighting its own war against the Taliban and Al Qeada sympathizers.

Besides, so conflicting are official statements that one does not know whether to laugh or cry. Referring to US special envoy Richard Holbrooke's recent visit and his rebuttal of suggestions that Pakistani authorities had taken up the drone issue during meetings with him, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Mr Holbrooke was told loud and clear that drone attacks were counter productive to Pakistani strategy to the war on terror.

On the contrary, Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar was unaware of what the prime minister and the US envoy discussed during their meeting. He said the issue had already been taken up with the US officials and therefore it was not necessary to discuss it every time officials from the two countries meet.There have been attempts on both sides not to unravel the truth about drone attacks, although rumour has it for a long time now that US drones that carry out missiles strikes are based in Pakistan. US Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is said to have told a hearing attended by the director of National Intelligence that that the unmanned US air force drones operating in Pakistan are flown from an airbase inside the country. Last November, the Washington Post reported that Pakistan and the US had reached a tacit understanding on drone attacks. The newspaper said both countries made a deal in September 2008, according to which Pakistan allowed US to carry out drone strikes inside its territory.

The deal allows the US government not to publicly acknowledge the attacks while Pakistan's government continues to raise a hue and cry over the politically sensitive air strikes just to fool its own people. There are also unconfirmed reports on the basis of images captured from Google Earth that US forces fly unmanned drones from the Shamsi airbase in Balochistan. The base is located about 50km from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that allows US forces to launch drone attacks instantly whenever they are asked to.

According to Pakistani authorities, from January 14, 2006 to May 16, 2009, 65 US drone strikes in Pakistan killed 743 people, of which 14 were Al-Qaeda militants and the rest 'innocent civilians'. In contrast, top US officials consider these strikes very successful and maintain that these strikes have dealt a fatal blow to senior Al-Qaeda leadership.

Given the sophistication of drone technology and the fact that US won't dare put India's back up, the odds are against Pakistan getting the drone technology. On the face of it, drone attacks will remain contentious between the governments of the two countries. No prizes for guessing whether actually they are.
Courtesy: ANN

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