Pakistan’s Two Air Wars

Pakistan’s Two Air Wars

US drones bomb Pakistan regularly. Now, Washington is about to deliver twenty F-16s and surveillance planes to Islamabad along with a thousand 500-pound bombs.


Last week the Los Angeles Times reported on a 2008 authorization by the Bush administration, continued by the Obama administration, that expanded the US drone attacks in Pakistan. Citing current and former counterterrorism officials, the paper reported that the CIA had received "secret permission to attack a wider range of targets" allowing the Agency to rely on "pattern of life" analysis.

"The information then is used to target suspected militants, even when their full identities are not known," according to the report. "Previously, the CIA was restricted in most cases to killing only individuals whose names were on an approved list. The new rules have transformed the program from a narrow effort aimed at killing top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders into a large-scale campaign of airstrikes in which few militants are off-limits, as long as they are deemed to pose a threat to the U.S., the officials said."

There is no doubt that the Obama administration has dramatically expanded the use of drones in Pakistan and that the drone attacks are unpopular. It is far from a radical position to assert that the bombings are creating fresh enemies, inspiring militants and empowering the Taliban. On Monday, I reported on the comments of Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer and Georgetown Professor Christine Fair on the issue. Shaffer said he was against the drone attacks because they create a reality where the "Taliban are more motivated than ever to come at us… the Predator program is having the same effect [it had] in Afghanistan two years ago in killing innocents" that it is now having in Pakistan. Shaffer is no anti-war activist–on the same show he advocated deploying US "boots on the ground" in Pakistan. Fair, a respected former UN advisor in Afghanistan, made the ridiculous claim that "the drones are not killing innocent civilians," adding that the "residents of FATA [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas] generally welcome the drone strikes because they know actually who’s being killed."

It is indisputable that, across Pakistan, the drone strikes are passionately opposed. According to a poll conducted by Gallup last year, only 9% of Pakistanis support the strikes.

Presumably, Professor Fair was basing her assertion regarding support for drone bombings in FATA on polls such as the one conducted by the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy last year in FATA. It found that more than half of respondents (52%) believed the drone strikes were accurate and 60% believed the strikes were damaging "militant organizations." That is a far cry from "welcoming" US drone strikes.

Pakistani journalist Mosharraf Zaidi raises an interesting point about this, writing, "Anyone that suggests that drone attacks are popular is presenting an amputated and distorted fact." Zaidi writes:

"The only enthusiasm that exists for drone attacks is within the context of having to choose between different poisons. If given a choice between drone attacks, and Pakistani artillery and aerial bombardment campaigns, many tribal people will choose the drone attacks because no matter how many civilians they kill, it is less than the blunt force of the Pakistani military. So in a room with only two very ugly options, the drone attacks are the less ugly. That is not the same thing as being popular."

This aspect of the war in Pakistan–the Pakistani military’s own air war–is seldom discussed in the US media, despite the fact that the US is playing an expanding role in it. Since 2005, when the ban on most US military sales to Pakistan was lifted, Islamabad has been building up its air capabilities, swiftly ordering $5 billion worth of Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-16s. After the 2008 "scorched earth" attacks on Bajaur, the Pakistani air force has been purchasing a steady stream of weapons, training and upgrades from the US. Before the Swat offensive in April-May 2009, the US provided Pakistan with laser-guidance systems for bombs fired from F-16s, which were used extensively.

In April, a Pakistani military strike reportedly killed upwards of 70 civilians. That same month, the US announced the delivery of the fresh, new F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. "The first four of the 18 planes purchased are scheduled for delivery June 26 to Shahbaz air base in south-central Pakistan," according to the US Air Force. "The rest will be delivered on a staggered schedule throughout this year. In addition, Pakistan’s existing F-16 fleet will undergo a mid-life update in 2011 designed to upgrade cockpits and avionics to match the F-16C/D."

"The F-16 sale is a sign of this burgeoning relationship between us and increased defense cooperation between our two countries," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, adding that US personnel were deploying to Pakistan "to assist the Pakistanis so that they can operate these sophisticated warplanes." The US is reportedly sending 50 personnel to Pakistan in June to accompany the war planes and provide instruction to the Pakistanis. That amounts to an approximately 25% increase in the acknowledged US military presence in Pakistan.

The US and Pakistan are wasting no time in training the pilots. Eight Pakistani air force pilots recently became the first from their nation since 1983 to train in the United States. The Pakistani pilots received training over the past month from the Arizona National Guard at Tucson International Airport. On May 5, they were honored at a graduation ceremony and are now off to Lockheed Martin to receive additional instruction. "For Pakistan, our air force is gaining capabilities that it has needed for the last decade — capabilities that are critical to ongoing operations in Pakistan’s war on terror," said Wing Commander Ghazanfar Latif, a 12-year F-16A pilot with the Pakistani air force. "This is going to make a big difference because we do not have the capability to make precision engagements at night… Everybody understands that collateral damage is a big factor, and the [new technology on the planes] will help us carry out precision engagement and close-air support."  Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said the war planes would help Pakistan fight "radical elements" on the border with Afghanistan.

In February, the US delivered 1,000 MK-82 500 lb bombs to Pakistan, followed by "an initial batch" of 700 GBU-12 and 300 GBU-10 Paveway laser-guided bomb kits built by Lockheed and Raytheon Co, sophisticated technology that will allow better targeting of the weapons.

But it is not just fighter jets and bombs the US is selling Pakistan or training its pilots to use. The day the Pakistani pilots graduated in Arizona, the US Air Force announced a solicitation for US companies to bid on a training program for Pakistani pilots flying surveillance planes, revealing that the "Pakistan Government purchased two specially modified King Air 350 aircraft." Depending on its modifications, the King Air 350 can be used for signals intelligence, command and control, communications support and surveillance (The Iraqi government recently purchased them as well).

The point here is that there is every indication that the air war is going to intensify in Pakistan on two fronts. The US drone campaign appears to be escalating and the Pakistani military is building up, modernizing and elevating the lethality of its air force thanks to US training and the approval of military hardware sales.

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