By Farhad Peikar
Last week the two Islamic South-Asia neighbours — Afghanistan and Pakistan — celebrated their Independence Day with leaders from both nations delivering emotional speeches about the heroism of their ancestors, while ordinary citizens danced to the tone of national rhythms and waved flags.
However, the people in both countries know that being independent means to have territorial integrity and sovereignty, something which has been violated by outsiders in both states. For years the US unmanned drones have been targeting “suspected terrorists” inside Pakistani territory, while Afghanistan has come under repeated attacks from Pakistani soil. The patience for continuation of such attacks is running thin in both states, while the issue has topped the agenda of any meeting held among officials of the three countries. There are also questions about effectiveness of such strikes and the dual standard approach on their legality and justification.
When Pakistan’s intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Islam visited Washington earlier this month, he had a stark message from his nation to his American counterpart, CIA Director David Petraeus – put an end to drone strikes.
Speaking to an audience at the Aspen Security Forum ahead of the intelligence summit, Islamabad’s ambassador to Washington Sherry Rehman warned that her country would rigidly stand against the CIA-managed drone strikes: Yes, they have caused damaged to al-Qaeda, Rehman acknowledged, but they now only add impetus to the recruitment of new militants in tribal areas. “We will seek an end to drone strikes and there will be no compromise on that,” she said.
However, with recent rocket attacks – attributed by Afghan officials to the Pakistani military – Islamabad cannot escape the paradox that it ostensibly entitles itself to target anti-Pakistani militants inside Afghanistan; while at the same it vehemently condemns the U.S. drone strikes against the same kinds of militants inside its territory, when it proves unable to neutralize them. The recent cross-border attacks against Afghanistan are not only violations of international norms; they clearly – and apparently unintentionally – justify the U.S. air assaults on Pakistani tribal areas.
The eastern Afghan province of Kunar has witnessed a series of cross-border rocket barrages in the past weeks, leaving at least four civilians dead and many more injured, and forcing hundreds of families to flee their homes. The latest barrage is ostensibly a response to cross-border attacks by anti-Pakistani militants, who Islamabad alleges to have sanctuaries in the rugged terrain of eastern Afghanistan.
Pakistan accuses Afghan and coalition forces of turning a blind eye to militants who allegedly cross the border and attack Pakistani forces near the Durand Line. Pakistani security sources have claimed that dozens of militants crossed the border earlier in July from Kunar Province, and attacked anti-Taliban militias in Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal area, killing two and taking scores hostage. They escaped to Afghanistan when Pakistani soldiers showed up.
Pakistan’s grievance has so far found little sympathy from the Afghan and U.S. governments, which have long accused Pakistan of providing sanctuaries to Taliban-led insurgents who launch attacks inside Afghanistan. Some elements inside the Pakistani government have been accused by Kabul and Washington of providing material support to Taliban in a bid to use them as leverage when the NATO-led forces leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Kabul condemned the recent rocket barrage by summoning the Pakistani ambassador to the Foreign Ministry to lodge a formal protest over the shelling, and threatening to refer Islamabad to the United Nations Security Council if such attacks do not cease. Pakistan has denied that its forces were behind the barrage.
Afghanistan parliament voted earlier this month to dismiss both Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi for what the lawmakers described it as a failure to stop the cross-border shelling from Pakistani soil.
Prior to his dismissal Minister Mohammadi provided the lawmakers with pictures of heavy artillery rounds. “These are 155-mm rockets that except for Pakistani government no other group possesses it,” Mohammadi said while holding up a picture. “This is very heavy artillery. Taliban do not have such heavy weapons.”
Speaking at the same session on July 31, Mohammad Yasin Zia, the Afghan deputy spy chief, alleged that Pakistan was trying to place spies in the houses left vacant by fleeing Afghans, while the Afghan National Army’s chief of staff, Shir Mohammad Karimi charged that Islamabad was attempting to force Kabul to recognize the Durand Line as an international border by shelling rockets.
The approximate 1,500 miles Durand Lind was demarcated by British India in 1893, but Kabul has never recognized it as an international border.
Meanwhile, NATO has refrained from taking a clear stance vis-à-vis the rocket attacks. NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) issued a statement on July 24 condemning the “cross-border insurgent indirect fire attacks” – a careful calibration aimed at not directly accusing the Pakistani military. However, in an identical statement a day later it omitted the word “insurgent” from the cross-border attack and emphasized that Tripartite Commission meetings (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and ISAF) should work to ensure an end to such attacks.
Pakistani officials have also contradicted themselves when responding to questions about the cross-border rocket attacks. “Pakistani troops only respond and engage militants from where they are attacked or fired upon,” an unnamed Pakistani security official was quoted by The New York Times as saying. Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf tacitly justified his army’s action in a press conference by implying a measure of self-defence: “From this side, from the Kunar side, we get attacks on our armed forces and our civilians.”
Just as Islamabad maintains the right to defend its territorial integrity and strikes inside another sovereign country in self-defense, it cannot also ignore the paradox it creates by pushing for an end to U.S. drone strikes.
Dozens of demonstrations have been staged across Pakistan to protest these attacks, while Islamabad calls for international support in ending CIA assaults on its territory. And Pakistani lobbyists gained enough support from international organizations, including the United Nations, to bring the legality of these strikes into question.
UN experts and civil rights groups called for greater accountability and transparency of the U.S. drone strikes during the 20th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in July this year. Former Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, wrote in his 2010 report to the council that targeted-killing programs, including drone strikes, are “a strongly asserted but ill-defined license to kill without accountability.”
There has been a duality of standards on the part of Pakistan’s government, its civil society, and international civil rights organizations when it comes to respecting the Afghan sovereignty. And little has been done by the world body to stop Pakistan from shelling across the border. Even the U.S. government, which recently signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan, did not release any public statement.
If the shelling is an intended form of retaliation for drone strikes, then it has to be recognized that Afghanistan does not own drones, nor does it have any authority to stop them. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made no secret of his objections to drone strikes inside Pakistan because of civilian casualties
While one could draw similarities behind the objectives of drone strikes and rocket fire, in practice there are striking differences.
The drone strikes have undoubtedly caused civilian deaths in Pakistan, but their effect might also be a contributing factor decreasing violence in the south-Asian nation. According to data reported by CNN, there were 41 suicide bombings in Pakistan in 2011, down from 87 in 2009. And in 2010, the United States launched a record 118 drone strikes in Pakistan, coinciding with an almost 50 percent drop in suicide attacks across the country that year.
Additionally, while drone strikes were responsible for deaths of Pakistani civilians in the first years of the campaign, they have become more precise and discriminating in 2012, bringing a marked decrease in civilian casualties.
By contrast, the cross-border barrages have primarily struck civilian homes, and have not resulted in the known deaths of any anti-Pakistani militants.
July is not the first time that eastern Afghanistan came under fire by its neighbour. Similar attacks in June 2011 and June 2008 resulted in the deaths of at least 30 Afghan civilians and displacement of hundreds of families. Citing these facts and figures is by no means intended to justify the use of drones in targeted killings, but to show the interest the Pakistani government might take in these air strikes.
While the rocket barrages and the resulting deaths seem insignificant to some, it should be noted that these strikes happened despite the presence and authority of tens of thousands of international forces. With NATO-led troops slated to leave Afghanistan by late 2014, these cross-border tensions threaten to escalate to open conflict between the two neighbours if they are not addressed. This would be far more unmanageable than a situation in which the Taliban regain some semblance of power in Kabul. Any war between the countries would not only be destructive to them but would also jeopardize the broader security of South and Central Asia.
Yes, there are striking differences between the two countries, but there is more that binds them together. The two countries are both suffering from militancy waged by extremists on their shared border. They would do better to work together with international support to defeat militancy in the region, instead of providing sanctuaries to each other’s enemies and lobbing rockets and accusations. Additionally, in order to use their resources for bettering their economy and standard of living, their leaders, civil societies and more importantly, young generations, urgently require a mutual and honest clearing of the slate before they can move onwards.
Farhad Peikar worked as the Bureau Chief for German Press Agency in Kabul until June 2011. Currently he works on his dual master’s degree at Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He can be reached on [email protected].