In rare move, drone strike reaches beyond tribal area, targets Pakistani province

The morning strike on a religious school killed at least five people, including the second leader of the militant Haqqani network to die this month.

By , Staff writer

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    Residents stand at the site of a drone attack on an Islamic seminary in Hangu district, bordering North Waziristan November 21, 2013. The suspected US drone strike on the Islamic seminary in northwestern Pakistan killed a senior member of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network early on Thursday, Pakistani and Afghan sources said.
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Drone strikes in Pakistan are not ucommon, but today's strike was unusual for targeting a madrassa, or Islamic seminary, outside the tribal areas that borders Afghanistan.

Local officials told The Washington Post that it was the first drone strike in a Pakistani province in five years, while the Associated Press (AP) reports it is only the second strike outside the tribal areas since the US began using drones in Pakistan. Kyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly the Northwest Frontier Province, lies to the northeast of Federally Administered Tribal Areas. 

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The morning strike killed at least five people, including Ahmad Jan, a deputy of Sirajuddin Haqqani, a leader of the militant Haqqani network; Gul Sher, leader of the Afghan Taliban in Paktia Province; and Maulvi Hamidullah, leader of the Afghan Taliban in Khost Province, AP reports.

Drone strikes are highly controversial to begin with, but today's strike provoked additional outrage for reaching into the more settled areas of Pakistan proper.

"Now no place is safe. The drones are now firing missiles outside the tribal areas," Shaukat Yousufzai, health minister for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government, told AP.

Reuters reports that a Pakistan official said Haqqani was at the madrassa as recently as two days ago.

The Haqqani network, labeled a terrorist organization by the US, has long used Pakistan as a base for launching attacks on NATO troops in Afghanistan. It was behind the 2011 attack on the US embassy in Kabul and operates largely out of North Waziristan in the tribal areas, The Wall Street Journal reports. The Afghan Taliban also frequently shelters inside Pakistan.

In 2011, the Pakistani military said it would not take action against the Haqqani network, despite US demands. The AP reports that US officials suspect that Pakistan believes the Haqqani network could be an ally in Afghanistan after the NATO withdrawal next year and is unwilling to crack down on the group.

According to Reuters, the group has been strained since the Nov. 11 killing of Nasiruddin Haqqani, who was the group's "chief financier." Nasiruddin, Sirajuddin Haqqani's brother, was shot outside Islamabad two weeks ago. Officials do not know who killed the brother.

The strike will undoubtedly prompt an outcry from hardliners in Pakistan because the drone strikes are highly controversial. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province governed by the party of former cricket star Imran Khan, were livid. The central information secretary of Mr. Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, Shireen Mazari, described Thursday's drone strike as "a declaration of war against the people of Pakistan by the U.S."

"[Were] the Pakistan government and military sleeping while Pakistan was being attacked or were they complicit in this latest drone attack?" she said in a statement.

Mr. Khan was already planning anti-drone protests for Saturday in reaction to the Nov. 1 strike that killed the Pakistani Taliban leader, Mr. Mehsud. Thursday's attack was the first believed U.S. drone strike in Pakistan since then.

Khan, a popular and influential politician, held a press conference in Islamabad today in which he berated Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for not taking a stronger stance against drones, Pakistan's The Express Tribune reports:

He told Nawaz not to “play on both sides of the wicket,” adding that he should give up his “dual policy” of telling the US one thing and Pakistan another.

“If the prime minister strictly told [America] that drone attacks must stop, they would never conduct such attacks,” he said.

“If they attacked Hangu then what will stop them from attacking any other place if they suspect terrorist activity there?” the PTI chairman added, stressing that America could strike based on suspected terrorist attacks, not certain ones.

Khan also reiterated his party's support for blocking NATO supply routes that run through Pakistan into Afghanistan, which are critical to supporting the war effort in Afghanistan. Previously only part of his party's stance, the provincial government will now stand united against the supply routes until drone strikes cease, he said, according to The Express Tribune. 

Pakistan's foreign policy chief Sartaj Aziz reportedly said yesterday that the US had promised not to carry out any drone strikes while Pakistan tries to hold peace talks with the Taliban, Reuters reports. But the official outrage is often exaggerated. "Pakistan publicly opposes U.S. drone strikes, saying they kill too many civilians and violate its sovereignty, although in private officials admit the government broadly supports them," Reuters notes. 

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