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Imran Khan and Drones

The anti-American rhetoric of the PTI chairman’s latest campaign harkens back to the heyday of his 2017 protests

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. James Lee Harper Jr.-USAF—AFP

Ousted prime minister Imran Khan’s February 2022 visit to Moscow on the eve of Russia’s Ukraine invasion reportedly changed American policy toward Pakistan. Already leaning toward India in the Indo-Pacific region, Washington’s displeasure at Islamabad’s refusal to condemn the invasion sent a clear message about where President Joe Biden stood vis-à-vis Pakistan.

In response, Khan reverted to his old anti-American rhetoric, criticizing U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan and highlighting “Pakistan’s folly of befriending the United States.” In a report published in 2017, the BBC noted: “Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan has begun a motorcade march to Pakistan’s restive tribal areas to protest against U.S. drone strikes. The two-day protest started in Islamabad and is due to end in South Waziristan, a major focus of strikes. Khan, like many Pakistanis, says the attacks kill large numbers of civilians and foster support for militants.”

None of this is particularly new or unique; Khan’s latest volley recalls the anti-drone rhetoric of most Pakistani leaders—in and out of power—who routinely denounced drone strikes that targeted alleged Taliban safe havens on Pakistani territory.

Immoral embrace of Taliban

No period of Pakistan’s history is more bedeviled by ambiguity and collective self-deception than the decade of “drone attacks.” In October 2017, counted together with ground attacks, 70 drone strikes were reported inside Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. In the last week of October alone, 30 people were target-killed. Pakistan didn’t like these attacks when they trespassed on its territory and caused a lot of collateral damage. Despite that, it is difficult to ignore that they got rid of some of the most dreaded killers of Pakistani citizens inside Pakistan. At times, people were compelled to conjecture that Pakistan actually “requested” the strikes.

Among the casualties in October 2017 was the chief of Jamaatul Ahrar, an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban, who was killed by a drone inside Afghanistan. The militant faction had perpetrated several attacks within Pakistan, with senior leader Umar Khalid Khurasani—reports of whose death had emerged twice earlier—reportedly masterminding the 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar that killed 144 staff members and students belonging to families connected to the Army. This was a kick in the guts to the proud Pakistan Army and traumatized the entirety of Pakistan.

The outrage among Pakistanis was so intense that it was hardly assuaged by the hanging of the men who had facilitated the Army Public School assault. But once in Afghanistan, Khurasani was out of Pakistan’s reach.

Baitullah Mehsud kills Benazir

Another casualty of the 2017 drone strikes—this time in January—was Al Qaeda’s Qari Saifullah Akhtar in Afghanistan’s Nangrahar province. He had earlier been allowed to go free after being accused of involvement in a 1995 coup attempt to topple the government of Benazir Bhutto. In a letter listing the people she feared had plotted to assassinate her, she listed Akhtar as one of the suspects—the real culprit ended up being Baitullah Mehsud, acting on the orders of Osama bin Laden as disclosed by an intercepted phone-call; he was killed by a drone strike in August 2009.

A leader of the Harkatul Jihad-al-Islami, Akhtar was released in early December 2010 after being detained over his potential role in Bhutto’s assassination. He was known to be closely linked to Ilyas Kashmiri, the Kashmir jihadi who joined Al Qaeda and carried out the most dreadful attack on the Karachi naval base in May 2011 on behalf of the terrorist organization. Kashmiri, too, was eventually killed by an American drone, in June 2011.

The most wanted terrorist chief of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, also became a victim of American drones in November 2013. This was shortly after he had captured and personally executed two ex-ISI officers, Khalid Khwaja and Colonel Sultan Amir Tarar alias Colonel Imam.

Acting on compulsion?

It is amazing that American drone strikes were targeting members of the Pakistani Taliban rather than the Pakistan Army, which should have done the job through ground operations. Several of the militant group’s leaders were slain in similar strikes, with Nek Muhammad being the first chief to be droned in 2004, reportedly at the request of the armed forces.

Brigadier (retd.) Shaukat Qadir, an outspoken ex-chief of an Islamabad think-tank, dropped a bombshell by alleging to media in 2013 that Pakistan Army chiefs were too scared of Taliban backlash to accept that they had been the ones asking America for the drone attacks. “We have seen what happened when [Gen. Pervez] Musharraf took credit for the 2004 drone attack in which Nek Mohammad was killed. The attack was carried out by the U.S. on Pakistan’s request. But owning it triggered a Taliban backlash against the Army. Since then, we are unable to take a clear position on drone attacks despite the fact that they are carried out with the army’s approval,” he claimed.

According to Qadir, the Pakistan Army was also aware of the presence of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad but did not wish to take any action that could provoke backlash. Slain by American commandos who infiltrated into Pakistan with gunships in 2011, bin Laden’s presence in the country marked a lull in ties between Islamabad and Washington. In his media interaction, Qadir alleged that then-Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani had wanted to avoid the pro-Al Qaeda narrative prevalent among Urdu-language media and decided to hide the truth about bin Laden, just as he had in the case of the drones. “Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad was tracked by the Army, but ironically it was not in a position to claim credit,” he claimed.

Gen. Kayani’s denunciation of America after its infiltration into Pakistan got him on the right side of the terrorists. America, meanwhile, responded with a soft touch by “absolving” him of not knowing about bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Pakistan has been hamstrung by the paradox of taking on Islamic warriors that it once considered soldiers of God. The Army has often pursued a policy of dialogue with them, but struggled to find a position of strength from where to start. It feared a backlash in the hinterland because of the outreach of the Taliban’s Islamic proselytization from South Punjab to Karachi. It didn’t help matters that the terrorists it faced sported an ideology that they believed far superior to the one expressed in Pakistan’s Constitution; this was persuasively explained by Al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in his treatise The Morning and the Lamp, which was widely available in Pakistan after being translated from Arabic into Urdu by madrassas.

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