Senior Pakistani security officials have confirmed that a missile hit a camp, or meeting place, of militants associated with Afghanistan’s Hezb-e-Islami group, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, on Wednesday. The attack, which occurred in the Bajaur tribal region on the Pakistani side of the troubled border, was reportedly carried out from Afghanistan by US-led coalition forces.
It has become routine for US-led coalition forces to launch missiles into Pakistani territory from neighbouring Afghanistan
Unmanned US drones firing missiles into Pakistani territory have become almost routine in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area. In the past, there were harsh protests from Pakistan about such violations of its sovereignty.
So what was most remarkable about Wednesday’s air strike, which killed at least nine, therefore was not the denial which came from the US military in Kabul, but the lack of protests from Islamabad.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, a journalist from Peshawar and an expert on the border area, explained: “Many people here in Pakistan suspect that the Pakistan government and army have accepted the right of the US to launch attacks in Pakistani territory, if they have got good intelligence. That, I think, is the policy now.”
Change of course
This pragmatic attitude is in marked contrast to previous policy statements by the ruling parties, which used to routinely accuse President Musharraf of selling out Pakistan’s national interests by allowing the Americans to hit targets in Pakistan.
One explanation for the changed attitude in Islamabad could be that the Americans never took much notice of Pakistan’s protests; but it also has to do with Pakistan’s own policy towards the militants, which has changed over the last few months.
When the government of Prime Minister Gillani came into office, it promised to halt all military operations in the border areas and make new efforts to negotiate with the militants. But these days, there is heavy fighting between troops and militants in various regions along the border, for example the Swat valley and the Bajaur tribal agency.
“It seems that, right now, the new government’s policy of dialogue has been put on the backburner, while the military option has taken the lead. And that’s why we have seen the use of gunship helicopters and even jet fighters being used by the Pakistan army and air force to bomb the positions of militants in Bajaur,” observed Rahimullah Yusufzai.
At least 25 people were reportedly killed in Bajaur on Wednesday alone. Some days ago, Pakistan announced it had killed the Egyptian national Abu Saeed al-Masri, a leading al-Qaeda operative, there – a claim, which has yet to be confirmed.
What is clear is that air strikes on villages invariably kill civilians, cause hundreds to flee the area and alienate the population, making it that much easier for the Taliban to attract fresh recruits.
Rahimullah Yusufzai has become very pessimistic: “I don’t think there is a solution because they have tried the military option in the past, they have tried the peace process – and both have not worked. The military solution, I think, is not possible, because there would be retaliation by these Taliban. They already exploded a bomb in Peshawar, killing 14 people including ten from the Pakistan Air Force. And there would be more retaliatory strikes by Taliban. And also I think that the peace process still has some hope, but it has to be a proper peace agreement with proper monitoring and implementation.”
With no peace talks in sight, it seems that the spiral of violence on the Pakistani-Afghan border is just taking another turn.