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. it is murder. They are just as entitled to a trial as OJ Simpson.

  2. The fall of the current Pak government means . . . what, precisely? No government can stop the drone attacks, which will continue so long as we are in Afghanistan. A hostile Pak government actually solves several problems for the U.S. A hostile Pakistan caught between the U.S. and India could be dealt with decisively, as opposed to the pussyfooting policy we’ve been following for years.

    The question of Karachi, however, does bear thinking about. It’s unclear to me why the enemy hasn’t done more to work this chokepoint against us. Is security in Pakistan that strong? Anybody know of any writing or other info on the subject? In the same vein, I wonder why the supply line between Karachi and the Khyber Pass has not been more stressed. Are U.S. and/or Pakistani efforts to secure the line that effective? Again, does anybody have good information on this?

    Most of the comments above leave one scratching one’s head. It’s easy to write, “the Americans made 9/11.” Where’s your evidence? Germans lured into Siberia by the Russians? Never happened. Obama is a mass murderer? Really? Since when are the readers of this blog a bunch of looney tunes?

  3. John, you have an appreciation of the balances of power relative to the US, Israel and Iran. Yet, when it comes to Pakistan you argue that we could just blow them off?

    We made Pakistan as its problems with India keep China preoccupied and allow us entry into the region. We don’t want to resolve problems.

    The problem is this entire rouse is bankrupting us, while it enriches the policy makers and those who lobby them. It is not just a plunder of foreign lands but of domestic coffers.

  4. I’ve said before that my preference is that the U.S. have no military or political entanglements in the Middle East. If it were up to me, we would not be sending a dime to Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or anybody else. We want to buy energy supplies from the region. That should be the alpha and omega of our desires in the Middle East.

    However, we have to live in the real world. The U.S. is not suddenly going to withdraw from the Middle East. Important elements in Pakistan are hostile to the U.S., and have hindered the unfortunate but probably necessary war we are waging in Afghanistan and the Pak border regions. I would be much tougher with Pakistan than we have been, and if that country became overtly hostile towards us, I would team with India to deal with it. The Paks will never be our friends; India is our long-term partner in South Asia. Iran and India are the two states we need on our side in the future.

    As to China, it represents the number one threat to America in the 21st century. We should be doing everything in our power short of war to weaken that state. What was practiced with the Soviet Union must done to China as well — the Han Chinese empire must be broken up before China achieves a position as hegemon from Suez to Hawaii.

Comments are closed.