For the first time in nearly six months, United States drones have struck targets within Pakistan. In response to the recent attacks against Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, U.S. drones struck Pakistan twice within 12 hours, killing at least 13 individuals.
U.S. drones struck first at a facility in North Waziristan, killing three people, while later on Thursday, three more missiles, fired on a militant compound and vehicle in the town of Ghulam Khan, killed 10 people.
The strikes are widely believed to be the nail in the coffin for Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s attempt to talk with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, or simply the Pakistani Taliban). Already under pressure by the Pakistani military to abandon talks and resort to force, Sharif seems to have come around to a military solution after the Karachi attacks, either being convinced or coerced by the military to do so. The resumption of U.S. drone strikes also demonstrates that American indulgence of Sharif’s attempts at negotiations seems to have ended. Negotiations were unlikely to be successful in any case as the TTP aims to establish a new order rather than seeking a place in the existing Pakistani system.
Pakistan may have given the United States express approval for the strikes, according to two top Pakistani officials, in what may have been the first time Pakistan openly admitted to such cooperation. However, domestic news reports in Pakistan offered conflicting reports on whether this was true and the Pakistani government condemned the strikes as a matter of course, perhaps to save face.
While most of the dead in the second U.S. strike were members of the infamous Haqqani Network, many of the dead in the first strike were ethnic Uzbeks, in a worrying development. The TTP presented the Karachi airport assault as a joint operation between them and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. As in Iraq and Syria, the increased presence of foreign militants usually correlates with an escalation of violence. Foreign militants enter Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria specifically for jihad while domestic fighters may be seeking redress for local grievances, which are more negotiable. Uzbek fighters are said to be particularly feared because they have no tribal attachments in Pakistan, making them ruthless and indiscriminate. The increased operational capability of Uzbek militants is also disturbing because of the trouble they could cause if they returned to Uzbekistan.
Pakistani sources have hinted that a major military operation in Waziristan is being planned. This goes to show that any collapse of the Pakistani state is far away. Moreover, Pakistan is unlikely to collapse into the type of lawlessness characterizing Iraq and Syria, because some instruments of the state remain functional, especially the military. This makes the actual long-term seizure of territory by militants difficult, as the military’s ability to defeating opponents was demonstrated in the Swat Valley in 2009. Nonetheless, recent incidents are indicative of the ability of the TTP and other groups to strike deep, almost at will, anywhere in Pakistan. It is the unfortunate people of Pakistan who must live in daily fear of ceaseless violence largely because of the government’s inability or unwillingness to tackle the problem.
The level of violence in Pakistan, which remains short of full-scale insurgency throughout the country, may mean that the Taliban are not strong enough or popular enough to mount a full-scale insurgency. However, their real goal may be much more sinister. They may be attempting to trigger civil war and the disintegration of the Pakistani state by fueling the fire of several conflicts through additional violence, including ethnic insurgencies and sectarian strife. This level of violence is becoming so bad that Pakistanis are fleeing to Afghanistan because it is considered safer, in a movement that ironically reverses the flow of people over the past three decades.