Will US drones start attacking Mullah Omar in Pakistan?
The Pakistani press is rife with reports that the US will expand its drone attacks into Balochistan Province where the Taliban leader is thought to be hiding.
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Are US Predator drones coming for Mullah Omar, the elusive, one-eyed leader of the Taliban? Mr. Omar has been in hiding since 2001, when US-led forces toppled his Taliban regime in Afghanistan. He remains one of the US military's top targets, along with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Legend says Omar fled to Balochistan province in Pakistan, which lies just miles from his former base in Kandahar, Southern Afghanistan. Today, one of Pakistan's most controversial rumors is that Omar is hiding in plain sight in or around Quetta, the province's capital, perhaps with the knowledge – and even support – of Pakistan's intelligence agency.
Such reports have never been proven. Neither have reports that US Predator drones may soon be targeting Omar and others in Balochistan. But discussion of such attacks is rife in the Pakistani press, fueled by reports in the international media.
US officials have confirmed that discussions are underway "in Congress and a lot of different places, to expand the area" where drones may attack, including to Balochistan province, reports the Associated Press.
The AP adds that Balochistan has become more a focus for discussions of expanded targets, given its "central role in stoking the Afghan insurgency." US intelligence and military officials believe that funding, planning, and fighters for the insurgency in Afghanistan, particularly in the South, are coordinated by Omar from his Pakistani hideout.
Potential drone strikes in Balochistan would seek to complement President Obama's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Many of those new soldiers would be facing off against Taliban fighters in the South.
The use of such attacks would also undermine declining trust between the US and its Pakistani allies. In 2006, Afghan intelligence provided a dossier to Pakistan officials outlining Omar's alleged movement in Quetta, according to the News International, a Pakistani newspaper.
Nothing was done, and Pakistani officials flatly denied the intelligence. And just last week, US Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US forces in the Middle East and South Asia, reiterated to National Public Radio that Omar is believed to be hiding around Quetta.
The attacks would suggest that a frustrated Washington is taking matters in its own hands.
Whether or not Pakistan would allow such attacks is a wild card. Pakistan's Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Giliani, "brushed away reports yesterday that Mr. Obama planned to increase the number of attacks by unmanned drone aircraft within Pakistan, and even extend them to the volatile province of Balochistan, in pursuit of Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders," reports England's Telegraph newspaper. "Such attacks were 'entirely counter-productive' in uniting militants and civilians, he said, adding that Pakistan was asking the US to hand over technology to let it pursue the terrorists itself."
US drone strikes are publicly condemned by the Pakistani government but appear to be tacitly approved in private. Still, those attacks are limited to Pakistan's tribal belt, a territory not strictly governed by Pakistani law. Attacks in Balochistan, however, would constitute a direct attack on Pakistani soil, and therefore, a more overt breach of Pakistani sovereignty.
Yet, in Pakistan, the press has cultivated almost an air of inevitability to the use of drones in Balochistan – reflecting a widely held public notion that the US commands Pakistan's official policy. The Daily Times, a Pakistani newspaper, quoted the governor of Balochistan province, Zulfiqar Magsi, as saying. "You cannot oppose someone who pays you money. The US is paying money to Pakistan. How can we oppose it? It will do whatever it pleases."