DAILY TIMES EDITORIAL: And now drones for Balochistan?

EDITORIAL: And now drones for Balochistan?

No one in Pakistan will support the reported plans in Washington to extend American drone attacks from the Tribal Areas to the already disturbed province of Balochistan. The Foreign Office in Islamabad has dismissed the news about the broadening of attacks published in the New York Times as speculation, and the Frontier Corps commander in Balochistan has rejected the allegation made in the report that the Taliban supporters were hiding in Quetta. Incidentally, the NYT story was contradicted the next day by the Washington Post which said that the US military was reluctant to extend the area of operations of the drones. Even so, it does seem like some people in Washington are giving the option a thought.

The government has already taken a tough stand on the bombing of the Tribal Areas by the CIA drones. It is politically incorrect to support a signal to the people of Pakistan that its sovereignty is being violated with the consent of anyone in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Coping with drones in Balochistan will present Pakistan with another challenge, perhaps more dangerous than the one faced by the collateral damage already being caused in the Tribal Areas.

One can say that the drones now belong to the biggest area of disagreement between the US and Pakistan. The political fallout from this disagreement is not benefiting the government in Islamabad, more so when some quarters question the sincerity of the government in seeking to stop the drone attacks. Did Pakistan ever allow these attacks? General Musharraf (Retd) says he didn’t, but if the drones land or take off from the landing facilities provided to the US by Pakistan, then the claim is hardly credible.

The “drone policy” couldn’t be changed in January this year when President Zardari put the issue before the visiting US Central Command (CENTCOM) General David Petraeus. The expansion of this policy to Balochistan will hardly be changed if Pakistan protests afresh. There are problems on the Pakistani side that we must take seriously. In the tribal Areas and in Balochistan, Pakistan hardly has any writ of the state. It has got so bad that the government is not able to secure innocent people against the violence of external and internal actors whose existence we deny.

Just because the people of Pakistan don’t mind the presence of Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban it doesn’t mean that the world would stop feeling threatened by them. For instance, it is quite beside the point that the FC commander in Balochistan denies the presence of the Afghan Taliban in Quetta. The corpus of evidence to the contrary, both inside Quetta and just outside it, is too big at the international level to be ignored. Quetta’s proximity to the troubled region of Kandahar in Afghanistan compels the cross-border squads of the Taliban to embed themselves in drone-free Balochistan.

While some quarters in Washington disapprove of the drone attacks if they alienate America’s ally Pakistan, others are impressed by the targets the drones have succeeded in striking. That the drones have unsettled Al Qaeda in the Tribal Areas and forced it to go on the defensive rather than steal initiative of action against Pakistani authorities also impresses the world if it doesn’t Pakistan. Some surveys, like the one done by The Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, a think tank in Peshawar, show that the “victims” of the Taliban actually welcome the drone attacks.

But Balochistan is going to present Pakistan with bigger problems than the Tribal Areas if the drones start operating there. The Baloch insurgents there have taken to kidnapping officials of the international agencies as an instrument of pressure in their dialogue with the Pakistan government. The one important person they now have in custody is UNHCR’s Johan Solecki, an American national. While the UN is trying its best to get him released it can’t be ruled out that the CIA might choose to strike the Baloch insurgents in addition to their declared target, the Taliban.

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