In an unusual move, Pakistan’s top military commander has denounced today’s airstrike in North Waziristan that was carried out by CIA-operated Predator aircraft. Pakistani officials are claiming that more than 20 civilians were killed in the strike.
In a statement released by the Inter-Services Public Relations, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, spoke out against today’s airstrike in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan, a known haven for al Qaeda and allied terror groups.
“Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, strongly condemns the Predator Strike carried out today in North Waziristan Agency resulting into loss of innocent lives,” according to the statement, which was released on the ISPR website. “It is highly regrettable that a jirga of peaceful citizens including elders of the area was carelessly and callously targeted with complete disregard to human life. In complete violation of human rights, such acts of violence take us away from our objective of elimination of terrorism. It is imperative to understand that this critical objective can not be sacrificed for temporary tactical gains.”
Kayani also called the airstrike a “senseless attack” and “aggression against people of Pakistan,” and ordered the Army to help those killed in the strike.
Kayani’s statement was preceded by another from Syed Masood Kausar, the governor of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, who claimed that a tribal jirga, or council, was hit.
Initial reports indicated that more than 30 Taliban fighters, including Sharabat Khan, a top lieutenant of Hafiz Gul Bahadar, were killed when the unmanned Predators or Reapers fired several missiles at a compound known to be used by the Taliban and other “militants.” [See LWJ report, US Predators strike again in al Qaeda stronghold of Datta Khel.]
But The New York Times later reported that the jirga was held to settle a mining dispute between local tribes, and was being mediated by the Taliban. Eleven Taliban fighters, including Khan, the Taliban commander, and 21 tribal leaders and attendees are reported to have been killed. The Taliban have an interest in settling disputes in order to tax the sales of chromite, the The New York Times noted.
The denunciations by Kayani and Kausar of today’s strike mark an unusual turn in Pakistan’s handling of the issue of US airstrikes on Pakistani territory. In the past, while publicly stating that the strikes are unhelpful, Pakistani officials have failed to weigh in on individual attacks. Kayani himself has previously remained silent about the strikes, while the Pakistani military has quietly aided the CIA in gathering intelligence and executing the attacks.
The denunciations also take place one day after Pakistan freed Raymond Davis, a CIA employee who is thought to have gathered information on Pakistani terror groups and supported the Predator strikes. Davis was arrested in Lahore after shooting and killing two Pakistanis who reportedly attempted to rob him. He also is suspected of tracking links between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate and the al Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Taiba, Al Jazeera reports. In addition, some have alleged that the two men he killed were ISI operatives.
Davis’ release has sparked protests among Islamists and nationalists alike. Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed issued a statement today through his charitable front, Jamaat ud Dawa, condemning the decision to release Davis as a “cruel act” that “has hurt the sentiments of the whole nation.”
Today’s statement by Kayani may have been made to deflect some of the criticism over Davis’ release. Also, the statement may have been designed to ease the US pressure to launch an operation in North Waziristan. The US has been pressuring the Pakistani military to move against the Taliban and al Qaeda in North Waziristan, as the tribal agency is used to host al Qaeda’s leadership and external operations network as well as to support terrorist operations in Afghanistan.
Datta Khel is one of the most targeted areas in the CIA’s air campaign in Pakistan. Forty-five of the 234 strikes, or 19 percent, have taken place in Datta Khel since the US began carrying out strikes in Pakistan in 2004, according to data compiled by The Long War Journal. And so far this year, eight of the 19 strikes in Pakistan have taken place in Datta Khel.
Today’s strike is the second in the Datta Khel area in two days, and the third in Datta Khel since Feb. 21. Several top al Qaeda commanders, including Mustafa Abu Yazid, a longtime al Qaeda leader and close confidant of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, have been killed in strikes in Datta Khel.