Will the Drone War Sink Pakistani Cooperation?

Perhaps the most frightening detail of the ever-growing U.S. war in the “Af-Pak” theater — even expanding into the usually quiet off-season of the cold Afghan winter — is that the war could be lost for the U.S. in a country where it can’t acknowledge putting boots on the ground: Pakistan.

Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari has been cooperative with Obama’s designs for the neighborhood — especially in providing a vital lifeline for U.S. supplies — even though the former is under constant assault for not doing more to end the covert drone war on Pakistani soil. But it’s not clear how much longer Zardari’s government or, more generally, Pakistan’s help in the Afghan war will last. But even though the Hellfire missiles fired from U.S. remote aircraft could be the very factor that pushes less compliant Pakistanis into power, Obama seems intent on surging both the C.I.A. and contractors that are carrying out these drone attacks.

In a chilling piece of admittedly speculative thinking about the ramifications of political fighting in Karachi, Juan Cole sketches out a scenario where recent spats may work their way into politics in Islamabad and potentially bring down the government. In the last week, more than 40 people have died in fighting between two political parties in the southern port city and financial hub of around 15 million.

Just as a massive supply-line “surge” is surely being ramped up to outfit and feed the tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers, spooks and mercenaries (to say nothing of other contractors in non-fighting roles) making their way into the theater, one of the paths of these goods — into Karachi and through the Khyber Pass — could be at risk.  Cole writes that

were security in Karachi substantially to worsen, it could form a further impediment to the US and NATO’s use of the port city to transship essential matériel up to the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan.

Cole acknowledges that such a level of instability is not imminently upon us, but his larger point is that this fighting could affect politics the capital because one of the groups, the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), is a coalition partner of the other, Zardari’s governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The MQM is threatening to withdraw from the government, alleging that the militants responsible for the attacks on its workers were from a poor district in the city loyal to the PPP.

If the MQM bails, Cole notes, the PPP may not be able to muster enough support in a vote of confidence. If that happens, the main opposition party, The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) will have a chance to form a government. But their ability to form a viable coalition is also in question. If PML-N fails, then there will be elections.

Here’s where the real risk will come in. Many of the religious right parties boycotted the last round of elections because they were held under a military dictatorship. With Musharraf gone, the way is paved for these parties to run and win seats in an open election. They may be able to muster enough support to play kingmakers for one of the larger parties.

The catch is that these potential kingmakers will likely be the most hostile to Obama’s covert war, giving them fodder for the campaign trail as well as a policy goal to pursue should they get a seat at the table.

What’s most troubling is that, as outlined in the must-read post by Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch, a part of Obama’s surge that goes largely unmentioned will include beefing up the C.I.A. presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan — and particularly across the largely irrelevant border between the two — to expand a campaign of targeted assassinations there.  Write Turse and Engelhardt:

While you’ve heard about President Obama’s surge in American troops and possibly even State Department personnel in Afghanistan, you’ve undoubtedly heard little or nothing about a CIA surge in the region, and yet the Journal’s reporters tell us that Agency personnel will increase by 20-25% in the surge months.  By the time the CIA is fully bulked up with all its agents, paramilitaries, and private contractors in place, Afghanistan will represent, according to Julian Barnes of the Los Angeles Times, one of the largest “stations” in Agency history.


Today, in Afghanistan, a militarized mix of CIA operatives and ex-military mercenaries as well as native recruits and robot aircraft is fighting a war “in the shadows” (as they used to say in the Cold War era).  This is no longer “intelligence” as anyone imagines it, nor is it “military” as military was once defined, not when U.S. operations have gone mercenary and native in such a big way.  This is pure “lord of the flies” stuff — beyond oversight, beyond any law, including the laws of war.  And worse yet, from all available evidence, despite claims that the drone war is knocking off mid-level enemies, it seems remarkably ineffective.  All it may be doing is spreading the war farther and digging it in deeper.

Talk about “counterinsurgency” as much as you want, but this is another kind of battlefield, and “protecting the people” plays no part in it.

Digging it in deeper, indeed. Digging in deeper, wider, and bigger. With more C.I.A., more drone strikes, and more subsequent civilian deaths, Obama may be digging himself right out of Pakistan. The problem is that without Pakistani support, digging himself out of the Afghanistan mess will be impossible.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. I don’t see what is so chilling about the PPP government, which has lost all its legitimacy following the revocation of the NRO, being replaced by one that better represents the views of Pakistanis? More than 80% are opposed to cooperation with the ‘war on terror’. As regards Obama’s ‘war on terror’, he can’t win for different, yet known, reasons, which unfortunately you haven’t touched on in your article. Here are Pankaj Mishra, Graham Usher, and Zbig Brzezinski on why Obama’s policy is doomed to failure (and it has nothing to do with the urban strife that has consumed Karachi for nearly 3 decades now).

  2. If you look in the history then you will find all the super powers made blunders, like the Americans made 9/11 to wage war against Irak and Afghanistan.Koran says if you make peace will be best option but the Americans have become mad and unbelievable and used to kill the masses.Allah does not like opression or to kill innocent people and it is not possible sitting hills and mountains to to operate on 9/11. Pakistani politicians have sold out Pakistan for their interest and every one knows that US are unreliable and unthankfull e.g. Afghans for the US against Russia and now they themself have become victims. Mommad (PUH) said thze voice of victims goes direct to God but it takes times till they are punished.
    PL.leave Pakistan we will be thankfull to the west

  3. this is exactly what Russia was doing to the Germans on the end of WW2. they literally lured the Germans into Siberia under the guise of that there were German Prisoners being held in Goulags and needed to be rescued. the Winter came and Russia cut off the supply lines. this is how they won the Battle without a single Shot fired on the front.
    The USA will never learn from any mistakes made because they are AMERICANS. i call it narcissism.

  4. Isen’t targetted assassinations just plain murder?
    The United States the “so-called”bastion of freedom and human rights carries out this vile illegal method of killings which would have any other nation hauled before the Human Rights Courts.
    Obama, Hillary Clinton, General McChrystal and all others in the United States are ALL guilty of mass murder. They should all be brought to justice ONLY THEN WILL THERE BE PEACE IN THIS WORLD.

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