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VICE News

US Resumes Drone Attacks on Pakistan, After Six-Month Break

The CIA restarted its covert drone war on Pakistan's North Waziristan on Wednesday in response to the Taliban attack on Karachi airport.

by Alice Speri
Jun 12 2014, 6:01pm

Photo via AP/ Mohammad Sajjad

They are back.

After a six-month hiatus, CIA drones started firing missiles over Pakistan again, killing at least 10 people — 16 by some counts — in airstrikes in North Waziristan today and Wednesday.

The unmanned aerial strikes resumed in direct response to the Taliban’s Sunday attack on Karachi airport, which killed at least 39 people, including 10 militants.

Pakistan’s Taliban claim responsibility for Karachi airport attack. Read more here.

The last US strike on Pakistan had been on Christmas Day — with the six months since marking the longest break in the US drone war on the region. The Pakistani government had asked the US to stop the strikes while it embarked on fragile talks with the Taliban, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), which has been monitoring the CIA's covert drone war.

But the Karachi attack dealt a final blow to the moribund peace talks.

Pakistan’s Taliban — the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — have recently called off faltering negotiations with the Pakistani government and claimed responsibility for the assault on the airport, which they said was in direct retaliation for a US drone strike that killed TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud in November 2013.

The violence at Karachi's international airport — a defiant show of the Taliban’s capacity to hit major targets — was carried out in a joint operation between the TTP and members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a foreign jihadi group, many of whom have found shelter in Pakistan’s tribal regions.

Giant art installation in Pakistan tells US drone operators people aren’t ‘bug splat.’ Read more here.

"TTP takes full responsibility for this great victory; which is an answer to the American drone strike, which was allowed by the Pakistani government, in which our leader Hakimullah Mehsud was martyred," Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the group, told VICE News after the attack. "TTP had showed a very positive and welcoming attitude towards the negotiation talks… TTP and other jihadi organizations' serious efforts to benefit our country and Islam have been answered by the government waging a war against us."

The Pakistani government has long threatened to launch a military operation against the Taliban in North Waziristan — and the collapsed peace talks sparked renewed calls for stronger government action against the insurgents.

'In some senses, the Pakistani government is trapped between a public that remains rather anti-American and huge terrorist threats emanating from the tribal belt.'

But officials have been sending contradictory messages about their support for US strikes in the region, covert operations which Washington has long been undertaking against militants in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Unnamed officials quoted by Reuters said that Islamabad gave the Americans "express approval" for the latest drone strikes, which they claimed were a "joint Pakistan-US operation."

"The attacks were launched with the express approval of the Pakistan government and army," a top government official told Reuters. "It is now policy that the Americans will not use drones without permission from the security establishment here. There will be complete coordination and Pakistan will be in the loop.”

Other sources said that Pakistani authorities, scrambling to respond to the Karachi attack, actually asked the US to intervene.

Why have US drones targeted so many houses in Pakistan? Read more here.

But the official government line seems to claim the opposite, as Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs rushed to issue a statement condemning the strikes.

“The Government of Pakistan condemns the two incidents of US drone strikes that took place near Miranshah in North Waziristan on 11 and 12 June,” the ministry said. “These strikes are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Additionally, these strikes have a negative impact on the government’s efforts to bring peace and stability in Pakistan and the region.”

But the Pakistani government — which has faced criticism both for engaging the militants and for its failure to stand up to the US — might have just been trying to save face.

"In some senses, the Pakistani government is trapped between a public that remains rather anti-American and huge terrorist threats emanating from the tribal belt," Alice Ross, project leader at TBIJ's drone project, told VICE News. "The two completely contradictory positions may reflect a desire to balance nationalism with looking tough and effective in the face of those threats."

"It's impossible to say with confidence which is true — and it's possible that the true situation is something more nuanced than either," she added. "It just highlights the fundamental problems of the secrecy and lack of accountability in which drone strikes in Pakistan take place."

Drone attacks are deeply unpopular in Pakistan, where they have sparked angry protests in the past. While the strikes claim to target compounds used by militants, these are often domestic structures that are also home to extended family networks.

And while US officials claim drone operations are "precise," that has often not been the case.

TBIJ estimates that up to 3,735 people have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan in the last decade — including up to 957 civilians and 202 children.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi