US drone strikes in Pakistan have killed six people including a senior leader of the militant Haqqani network. Right-wing Pakistani parties say they will block the NATO supply route to Afghanistan in protest.
Pakistani security officials confirmed on Thursday, November 21, that three US drone strikes had targeted a religious seminary in the Hangu district of the restive northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The seminary, they say, belonged to a terrorist organization.
It is the first time the US has targeted militants in an area which comes directly under the jurisdiction of the provincial government. Previous strikes were restricted to only lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Since 2004, the US has carried out hundreds of missile attacks from unmanned aircraft on suspected militants belonging to al Qaeda and the Taliban movement.
Local officials told AFP that two senior members of the militant Haqqani network, Maulvi Ahmed Jan and Mufti Hameedullah, had been killed in Thursday's strikes along with six other people.
"He (Jan) was the spiritual leader and head teacher of the Haqqani network," wrote AFP, adding that Jan was a member of the group's ruling council. "
"The seminary served as a base for the network where militants fighting across the border came to stay and rest," a source told the news agency on condition of anonymity.
On November 1, Hakimullah Mehsud - the head of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - was also killed in a US drone strike along with four other people, including two of his bodyguards, in the semi-governed North Waziristan area.
Drone strikes have become a thorny issue for Pakistani leaders, who face mounting criticism from the public for their inability to convince the US to halt them. While acknowledging that more militants have been killed in such strikes than civilians, Islamabad has nonetheless repeatedly called for an end to these strikes, saying they are a violation of Pakistani sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The human rights organization Amnesty International terms these strikes “unlawful.“
But the US considers the drones an effective weapon against the militants who it believes use Pakistan as a base to launch attacks on international troops in Afghanistan. It accuses the Haqqani network in particular of sabotaging peace efforts in the neighboring country, and claims that the group is backed by the Pakistan spy agency, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). Washington has repeatedly asked Islamabad to launch a full-scale military operation against the Haqqanis, but Pakistani rulers have so far not budged in.
Conrad Schetter, an Afghanistan expert at Bonn University's Center for Development Research, said the ties between the ISI and the Haqqanis were strong as ever. "The ISI supported the group in the 1980s in its fight against the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan. The network has proven to be a very loyal and reliable partner to ISI ever since," Schetter told DW.
The expert is of the view that Pakistan supports the Haqqani network so it can use it to assert its influence in Afghanistan once the NATO troops depart from the war-torn country in 2014.
Right-wing parties, as well as the ruling Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, have called for a protest rally against drone strikes set to take place along a crucial NATO supply route to Afghanistan, threatening to block it.
Spokesman of the Jamaat-i-Islami party Asrarullah Advocate told DW that his party would participate in the November 23 rally.
"People should understand now that the US can also strike Peshawar and Islamabad if it wants. It is time for the central government to act," Advocate said.
Shaukat Ali Yousufzai, a provincial minister, condemned the Thursday strikes and said Pakistanis could no longer afford to keep silent on these attacks. “Our province is suffering. It is the responsibility of all political parties to support us in our protest against the US,” Yousufzai told DW.
But there are supporters of the drone strikes too. A number of Pakistani experts are of the opinion that drones have been quite successful in destroying militants' hideouts in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas.
Ali K. Chishti, a Karachi-based security and political analyst, told DW that the "drone strategy against al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban has worked." He said the drone strikes had forced militants to restrict their movements.
Shamim Shahid, a political analyst, agrees with Chishti: "Until the Pakistani government expels foreign militants from its soil, the drone strikes won't cease."
Shahid told DW that Islamabad should tell the world clearly about its policy on terrorists who have sanctuaries within Pakistan.