Hoping to predict the chaotic outcomes of love and war, or at least gain an advantage over their opponents, humans have pursued countless methods of divination throughout the millennium.
Adhering to one theory of the Pythia, these auspices could often be explained by science rather than prophesy. Whether Thales forecast an eclipse or not, he wouldn’t have found himself in awe like Medes and Lydians soldiers at Halys. Methane may have induced the Pythia’s visions, but Delphi's vast exchange of political and military knowledge is considered to be of greater significance. And when Greek and Roman augurs hailed the flight of an eagle before war, one can imagine a subconscious, psychological conditioning taking over.
Mimicking the augurs of old, a modern political scientist can observe the Predators hovering over Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) and glimpse visions of the future.
The latest update on Washington’s drone barrage in Datta Khel doesn’t require much analysis. At least 30-40 civilians were killed after four Hellfire missiles targeted a meeting between local elders, a massacre that impacted Pakistani relations across the board. According to the local tribesmen, they had gathered to discuss a land dispute over the ownership of chromite deposits in the area. Interrupting this process is, in itself, a deep violation of counterinsurgency. Next comes the negative publicity at the local level, then the national level.
“In complete violation of human rights, such acts of violence take us away from our objective of elimination of terrorism,” General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s military chief and a vital U.S. ally, warned the White House. “It is imperative to understand that this critical objective cannot be sacrificed for temporary tactical gains. Security of people of Pakistan, in any case, stands above all.”
The innocent death at Datta Khel comes less than 24 hours after a Pakistani court released the CIA’s Raymond Davis. This “back to business as usual” attitude would be enough to further aggravate Pakistanis, let alone another civilian slaughter. Although inaccurate intel may explain Washington’s miscalculation, the combination of Davis’s release and the rest of U.S. activity in Pakistan makes America appear even more insensitive and clueless in a foreign region.
Sparking a new controversy moments after incompletely burying another confirms how little Washington learned from Davis’s near-trial. Impression management remains low on the priority list. Kayani pointedly labeled Thursday’s attack "careless and callous,” a view likely shared across Pakistani society. Needless to say, events in Datta Khel qualify as a COIN disaster.
The pure military consequences of Datta Khel require additional explanation. Before the victims’ identities emerged, the original targets were believed to be agents of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the TTP's commander of North Waziristan. This fact evidently melded with the wider tribal meeting to produce two versions of reality, as one local witness claimed, "One of Bahadur's commanders, Sharabat Khan, was also present at the meeting as he is also a local elder, but they were discussing business."
U.S. officials claim that Khan was traveling in the vehicle targeted by the first missile, before three more struck the meeting itself. His status remains unknown, with sources taking contrary positions on his survival.
Either option gives rise to the same possibility. Targeting Bahadur may represent a shift from unilateral attacks on the Haqqani network, possibly because it’s degraded or because the U.S. wishes to apply pressure on both groups. Haqqani and Bahadur, who was nominated for the TTP's leadership after Baitullah Mehsud's death, both operate under truces with Islamabad, promising to concentrate their attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan rather than on Pakistan's cities. But Bahadur has also promised war if Pakistan's military invades North Waziristan, as requested by Washington.
Given that Islamabad has so far refused, the White House and Pentagon likely believe they can’t wait any longer before July to renew their assault on North Waziristan. So to target Bahadur's commanders isn’t simply to degrade his network, but to provoke in order to justify future attacks. This ploy could yield unintended consequences such as increased friction with Islamabad and hostility at the local level, especially since Bahadur's other commanders also double as local elders.
Observing the movements of Predators provides one means of reading Washington's intentions. Drone strikes tend to lead the Pakistani army wherever Washington wants it to go, whether it follows or not. Drones ceased firing after Davis was arrested, then flared up again before his trial as if to taunt Islamabad. An attack so soon after his release seeks to prove that CIA business is back to normal, that Washington is still gunning for North Waziristan, and that the U.S.-Pakistani relationship remains intact.
Thursday's errant drone strike is the latest proof that this relationship, while "intact," can strain to the breaking point at any moment.