As drone strikes have increased, so have assassinations, Pakistanis say
Friday, December 24, 2010; 12:00 AM
PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN - As drone-fired missiles drop with furious frequency in the tribal area of North Waziristan, so do the bodies.
As often as seven times a week, tribesmen there say, corpses appear in fields and on roadsides with dark warnings pinned to their tunics: All American spies will meet the same fate.
Espionage has long been viewed as an egregious offense in the lawless borderland, but residents say the current pace of assassinations is unprecedented. The escalation parallels a massive surge in CIA drone attacks on North Waziristan, home to a nest of insurgents that includes al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network, an Afghan militia considered the most lethal foe of U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
CIA drones have fired 112 missiles on Pakistan's tribal areas this year, 88 percent of which hit North Waziristan, in a campaign whose effectiveness is hotly debated. But tribesmen say the U.S. campaign has had far-reaching consequences for the way of life in North Waziristan and provoked cycles of violence that, once in motion, are difficult to predict and impossible to control.
In interviews, several Pakistani officials, tribesmen, and one militant said the torrent of strikes has forced residents to stay indoors and deny friends shelter, fearing allegations of spying. The attacks have forced militants to ditch truck convoys and cellphones, and, in the case of the Pakistani Taliban, shutter an office in the town of Mir Ali.
Above all, residents said, the stepped-up strikes have perpetuated an entrenched culture of clan rivalry and retribution. With scant proof, militants are purging suspected moles, and their willingness to do so has made the accusation a valuable tool for people seeking revenge for land disputes or other personal enmities.
"They are just spreading terror by killing anyone," said Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, who commands all Pakistani troops in the northwest, including the semiautonomous tribal areas.
The escalated drone campaign, which Pakistan secretly allows, followed U.S. pressure on Pakistan to launch a military offensive in North Waziristan. The Pakistani army rejected those appeals, saying it is overstretched in other combat zones and needs time to plan an operation. American officials say those reasons are valid, but many also believe Pakistan is unwilling to jeopardize its longtime links to the Haqqani network.
As the missile strikes have accelerated, so has tension over the tactic, which many Pakistanis believe violates national sovereignty and kills innocent civilians.
Earlier this month, in the first event of its kind, hundreds of tribal area residents protested the attacks in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. Several pledged to join a lawsuit pursued by one North Waziristan resident, who is seeking compensation from the U.S. government and criminal charges against the CIA's top spy in Pakistan for the alleged deaths of his son and brother in a drone strike. The CIA pulled that spy, its station chief, from the country last week after his name was exposed in connection with the legal action.
North Waziristan, like all of the tribal areas, is a no-go zone for foreigners and many Pakistanis, making it difficult to ascertain an accurate picture of the effects of the drone campaign. In recent interviews, Pakistani security officials said the strikes are increasingly efficient in hitting militant targets, though one intelligence official derided the CIA as "trigger-happy." That assessment was echoed by several tribesmen.
The intelligence official said 70 informants for Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which provides intelligence to the CIA for drone strikes, have been assassinated in North Waziristan since 2004, making the area nearly a "black hole" for spies today.