Senior US officials are pushing to expand CIA drone strikes beyond Pakistan’s tribal region and into a major city in an attempt to pressure the Pakistani government to pursue Taliban leaders based in the city of Quetta — a city with some 850,000 people, according to a report Monday.
The Obama Administration is eyeing Predator aircraft strikes in Quetta in an effort to decapitate the Taliban, according to the LA Times. But the prospect of launching a major attack in a highly populous city has struck some officials as unwise, officials who apparently leaked news of the program to a major US newspaper.
Pakistani officials have also warned that the fallout would be severe.
“We are not a banana republic,” the Times quoted a senior Pakistani official as saying. If the United States follows through, the official said, “this might be the end of the road.”
Obama officials disagree. One senior US official was quoted as saying, “If we don’t do this — at least have a real discussion of it — Pakistan might not think we are serious. What the Pakistanis have to do is tell the Taliban that there is too much pressure from the US; we can’t allow you to have sanctuary inside Pakistan anymore.”
Proponents, including some military leaders, argue that attacking the Taliban in Quetta — or at least threatening to do so — is critical to the success of the revised war strategy President Obama unveiled last week. But others, including high-ranking US intelligence officials, have been skeptical of employing drone attacks in a place that Pakistanis see as part of their country’s core.
The US has increased CIA-initiated Predator drone attacks since President Obama took office. In October, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer noted a New America Foundation study, which posited that Obama’s team had increased such strikes “dramatically.”
According to a just completed study by the New America Foundation, the number of drone strikes has risen dramatically since Obama became President. During his first nine and a half months in office, he has authorized as many C.I.A. aerial attacks in Pakistan as George W. Bush did in his final three years in office. The study’s authors, Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, report that the Obama Administration has sanctioned at least forty-one C.I.A. missile strikes in Pakistan since taking office—a rate of approximately one bombing a week. So far this year, various estimates suggest, the C.I.A. attacks have killed between three hundred and twenty-six and five hundred and thirty-eight people. Critics say that many of the victims have been innocent bystanders, including children.
In the last week of September alone, there were reportedly four such attacks—three of them in one twenty-four-hour period. At any given moment, a former White House counterterrorism official says, the C.I.A. has multiple drones flying over Pakistan, scouting for targets. According to the official, “there are so many drones” in the air that arguments have erupted over which remote operators can claim which targets, provoking “command-and-control issues.”
Mayer’s October piece took issue with the frequency of Predator strikes, which involve targeted assassinations of purported terrorists. While seemingly effective — and certainly effective at driving terrorists underground –there is little oversight.
“It’s easy to understand the appeal of a ‘push-button”’approach to fighting Al Qaeda, but the embrace of the Predator program has occurred with remarkably little public discussion, given that it represents a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force,” Mayer wrote. “And, because of the C.I.A. program’s secrecy, there is no visible system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile, nuclear-armed country with which the U.S. is not at war.”
Predator drones are flown by civilians. In the past, they’ve also involved security contractors such as Blackwater.
“According to a former counterterrorism official, the contractors are “seasoned professionals—often retired military and intelligence officials,’” Mayer writes. “Once the drones are aloft, the former counterterrorism official said, the controls are electronically ‘slewed over’ to a set of ‘reachback operators,’ in Langley. Using joysticks that resemble video-game controls, the reachback operators—who don’t need conventional flight training—sit next to intelligence officers and watch, on large flat-screen monitors, a live video feed from the drone’s camera.”
Quetta is a target because it is seen as a base for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
“Pakistan is not expected to hand over Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader and longtime ally of Osama bin Laden who fled Afghanistan when U.S. forces invaded after the Sept. 11 attacks,” the Times reporters write. “Omar is believed to have used Quetta as a base from which to orchestrate insurgent attacks in Afghanistan.
“But U.S. officials said they have presented Pakistan with a list of Taliban lieutenants and argued that, with a U.S. pullout scheduled to begin in 18 months, the urgency of dismantling the so-called Quetta shura is greater than at any time in the 8-year-old war,” they add.