Amidst a continuing diplomatic feud between Pakistan and the United States over a covert drone campaign by America’s top spy agency, fresh strikes by pilotless aircraft killed at least 25 people, among them women and children, in a tribal region on Friday.
Military and civilian leaders in Pakistan have been asking Washington to call off its controversial drone operation, terming it counter-productive to efforts against militancy.
Friday’s drone strikes took place in the Mirali sub-division of the North Waziristan tribal agency where, the US believes, the Haqqani Network is headquartered.
The network, which is operated by veteran Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani and his sons, is blamed for offering a rear base to Taliban insurgents in neighbouring Afghanistan.
US pilotless aircraft targeted two compounds – a house and a nearby hujra (guesthouse) – in Hassankhel village in the Spinwam area, sources told The Express Tribune.
“The drones launched two successive attacks. In the first strike, they fired two missiles, and in the second they released three more,” a military official in the area said.
The pre-dawn attacks flattened the two compounds which belonged to a local tribesman, identified as Gul Sharif, who is said to be a supporter of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the Taliban supreme commander in the North Waziristan Agency.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur is a descendent of Faqir of Ipi, a legendary fighter known for his innovative insurrection against British occupation in the 1930s and 1940s. Bahadur’s group is believed to be closely linked to the Haqqani Network.
Local security and administration officials in Miramshah, the headquarters of the North Waziristan Agency, said that at least 25 people were killed including three women and four children.
Another official said that the rest of the dead were local and foreign insurgents, but there was no report of any high value target and their nationalities were unknown.
Local sources told The Express Tribune that the dead were later buried in the Spinwam and Shawa areas.
The Spinwam area lies around 40 kilometres east of Miramshah –close to Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
The latest drone strikes came two days after US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen openly blamed Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the ISI, of maintaining ties with the Haqqani Network – an allegation denied by Islamabad.
The attacks also come amid growing calls from Pakistani leadership for an end to the drone campaign. Admiral Mullen is reported to have conveyed it to his counterpart that the drone attacks would be stopped only if the Pakistani military launched a full scale operation in North Waziristan, which is where most of the strikes are taking place.
But Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani says that the operation would be launched only if it is in Pakistan’s national interests.
Friday’s drone strike was the second this month. On April 13, a drone strike killed at least six people in the Angoor Adda area of South Waziristan.
That attack coincided with a visit to Washington by ISI chief Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha where he, according to the US media, had demanded an end to the drone campaign.
On Friday, a tribal lawmaker from the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) convened a jirga of lawmakers from tribal agencies to protest the drone attacks. Akhunzada Chitan, who belongs to Bajaur Agency, told the jirga participants at the Peshawar Press Club that the tribal people should unite against the campaign.
He criticised the government for its ‘silence’ on the killing of ‘innocent tribesmen’ by the Americans in the name of counter-terror operations.
“Militancy is sweeping across the country...the government will not tolerate US drone strikes elsewhere in the country,” he said.
Chitan said that he was receiving life threats for raising his voice against drone attacks. But, he added, nothing could stop him from speaking out against the extrajudicial killings by the US. He said another jirga of tribal lawmakers would be convened on May 5 which would devise a comprehensive strategy against the drone strikes.
Friday’s jirga was attended by leaders from all political parties, including the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl) and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).
PTI chief Imran Khan plans a two-day sit-in on the Nato supply route in Peshawar on April 23 and 24 to protest the US drone campaign. And Friday’s jirga called upon all tribesmen to join the sit-in irrespective of their political affiliations. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has also joined the political chorus against drone strikes as its chief Altaf Hussain called upon the political and civilian leadership to convene a roundtable conference to devise a strategy.
In a statement issued in Karachi on Friday, Altaf said all political parties, chiefs of armed forces and heads of national security institutions should be invited to such a conference and a decisive line of action should be adopted.
He also called for a referendum on the drone attacks to gauge public opinion on the issue. He was saddened by the Friday’s drone strike in North Waziristan.
Additional reporting by Irfan Aligi in Karachi
Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2011.