WASHINGTON: The Trump administration has dramatically ramped up drone strikes on Pakistan in the past week after the rescue of a Canadian-American couple and their three children, purportedly with Islamabad’s help. High-intensity and frequent strikes — of the kind not seen since 2010, when they averaged two a week — have resumed, amid signs that things are not all hunky-dory between the two countries despite both sides talking nice on the rescue issue.
Half a dozen drone strikes have rained missiles in Pakistan’s Kurram Agency following the rather shady “rescue” of the Canadian-American couple by the Pakistani military, which initially claimed that they were freed after a firefight with Taliban when they were being transported across the Pak-Afghan border. The “rescue” was reportedly based on US intelligence inputs, resulting in the interception of the vehicle on the Pakistani side of the border, and culminating in a clash in which all the hostage-takers were conveniently either reported killed or escaped.
But the Trump administration embarrassed Islamabad by publicly calling out Pakistan’s lies, with both Vice President Mike Pence and CIA Director Mike Pompeo saying the couple (and their three children) was being held in Pakistan, and not Afghanistan. “The Vice President thanked (Pakistan’s Prime Minister) Abbasi for his government’s assistance in recovering US and Canadian hostages that were being held captive by the Haqqani Taliban Network in the tribal areas of Pakistan,” a White House readout of Pence’s call to the Pakistani leader said.
There was no mention of Afghanistan or their crossing the border into Pakistan, and CIA director Mike Pompeo, too, confirmed the hostages were being held inside Pakistan, while demanding that Pakistan deny safe havens to the Taliban.
There was also an ominous note in the Pence readout. “Vice President Pence noted this effort as an important development in Pakistan’s support to the US strategy against terrorism in the region, but highlighted that cooperation against militant groups must be continued and sustained,” it said. “Just as he did during the meeting the two had in New York last month, the Vice President again discussed ways that Pakistan could work with the United States and others to bolster stability and security for all in South Asia.”
The US media had expressed skepticism about the rescue story dished out by the Pakistani military, given its long and close ties with the Haqqani network, which is alleged to have kept the Canadian-American couple hostage for more than five years. One explanation for their “rescue” soon after the return from U.S of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif was the ultimate he received in Washington, following up on the blunt warning issued by the President and his senior advisors that the time had come for punitive action against Islamabad.
A panicked Pakistani establishment appears to have decided not to push its luck while engineering the “rescue” of the hostages, including three infant and toddler children, much to the delight of a Trump administration that has had little success to boast of. Trump then publicly thanked tweeting: “Starting to develop a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders. I want to thank them for their cooperation on many fronts.”
The tweet sent alarms among regional experts, most of them deeply skeptical of Pakistan’s anti-terrorism credentials, with questions of how little it would take for the U.S President to over-turn a new Afghan policy that has been arrived at after much deliberation.
But in the week since the rescue, Pakistan has been battered by Drone strikes, even as its foreign minister Khwaja Asif has maintained that the strikes are in indeterminate territory since the borders with Afghanistan are poorly demarcated in the Kurram region.
These are the first drone strikes by the Trump administration after such attacks by unmanned aircraft reached a peak in 2010 (122 strikes) under the Obama administration and gradually petered out with 70 (in 2011), 48 (2012), 26 (2013), 22 (2014), 10 (2015) and 3 (2016).
The sudden resumption this past week with six strikes comes after both President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Pakistan that it is best to end its support for terrorist groups in its own interest. Tillerson is scheduled to drop by in Islamabad later this month before visiting New Delhi.