US officials better have examined how different Bajuar 2009 is from Bajuar 2006 before authorizing today’s drone strike. The tone from Pakistan doesn’t appear to indicate a significant change.
The story from Chuhatra village is that a missile struck the home of a local Taliban commander. Abdul Malik, an official in the region, reportedly told Reuters, “The missile hit home of Maulvi Faqir and we have reports of 10 dead.” Mohammad Jamil, a government official, then revised the death toll to 22 and pegged the target: Faqir Mohammad, TTP commander in Bajuar, who escaped.
The story from Islamabad? Qamar Zaman Kaira, the federal information minister, said during a press briefing that Pakistan has no military agreement with America. Major-General Athar Abbas, the Pakistani military spokesman, simply stated, “We do not want any assistance or interference from outside.”
Alan Fisher, Al Jazeera's correspondent on the scene, reported, "What the army is saying is there was no drone attack there - what it was, was explosives parked in a vehicle near the house and they went off, destroying three houses in the village and killing a number of people. The army say they have kicked out all foreign influences and this is an operation being conducted solely by the Pakistani military.”
What point has Abbas in lying? American dollars, weapons, equipment, and hegemony ooze from every Pakistani unit. One of several US military officials to speak about the relationship disclosed, “We are coordinating with the Pakistanis. And we do provide Predator support when requested.”
Maybe Abbas was referring to unrequested Predator support, which he’s well acquainted with. His reaction would make more sense in that context. Chuhatra won’t be as bad as Damadola, but it’s still a true fit to the pattern.
January 13, 2006. Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday, ended in death when four Predators fired up to ten missiles on a small compound, leveling three houses and leaving 18 dead. The target, al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zaqahiri, escaped a dinner he was attending, causing Pakistan to denounce the attack and America to al-Qaeda agents were killed.
Only civilians were found to have died in the attack when the dust settled. Mahmood Shah, Pakistan's security chief for the region at the time, said US and Pakistani officials first thought the strike's timing was “slightly off.” Now he thinks Zawahiri and the others were never there, revealing, “I just think the information was not correct.”
Local people, enraged by the truth, sparked a swift reaction from government officials, but they were both overwhelmed by another truth. Senator John McCain reportedly said after the strike, “It's terrible when innocent people are killed; we regret that. We apologize, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again.”
Up to five missiles struck a madrassa in Chenagai, Bajuar, on October 30th, 2006. Again Ayman al-Zaqahiri was the alleged target, again he escaped (or wasn’t even there), leaving a purported 70-80 people dead. Casualties consisted mainly of students who were returning from the Eid ul-Fitr holiday.
Damadola's reaction repeated itself: local protests and political condemnation. The Taliban, who held a rally only days before, were equally furious; a suicide bomb followed. Faqir Mohammad had his hands in the Damadola revolt and once again sunk them into Chenagai, leading the call for militancy and anti-Americanism.
Faqir eventually worked his way up the TTP partially through these two events to the point that he’s now the target. America will be lucky if he doesn’t use the attack as a another stepping stone.
Unfortunately no conclusions can be drawn with certainty. America appears to have caught a break, or acted on good intelligence, because the dead are all said to be Taliban, an improvement over civilians. Of course, that was the story last time. The local reaction is one indicator to watch.
The Pakistani army is another. Rapid denial usually equals cover up, as does repeated denial. Days ago an al-Qaeda commander was “accidentally blown up” by a car bomb - is this a new excuse for drone strikes? Obviously Pakistan and America are collaborating militarily, meaning Pakistan could be covering. They seem nervous and they don’t need an uprising in Bajuar.
Faqir is a third harbinger. Will he lash back or lie low? He might raise a political cry if civilians were killed; dead Taliban likely means a trip to the underground.
Meanwhile America will keep plowing away regardless of the outcome. With one strike on Hafiz Gul Bahadur and now one on Faqir, America is trying to contain what the Pakistani army cannot. US officials eagerly tout a reinvented relationship as Pakistani officials deny one, making their collaboration difficult to detail. They’re working together, but it’s feasible that America is operating independently in panic that Pakistan can't contain the TTP umbrella.
No amount of local protest, political outrage, or operational failure will halt the rain of missiles. At a certain point this strategy makes sense; America has absorbed every criticism Pakistan can levy and its popularity can’t dip much lower. Failure may await the drone at a strategic level, so success requires America to produce total victory at the tactical level.
A high risk endeavor, as Damadola, Chenagai, and Chuhatra demonstrate.