Pakistan: in defence of drones

January 9, 2010

tribesmenDawn columnist Irfan Husain has drawn attention to a fairly revolutionary article by Pakistani academic Farhat Taj in defence of drone attacks in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

By way of introduction, start with what Husain writes in his column:

“Many of us in the punditry profession are guilty of making generalisations about what is happening in the tribal areas without having visited them in recent times. Thus, when we hear about the anger and outrage supposedly sweeping though the people of Fata over the frequent drone attacks, we tend to accept this as the gospel truth,” he writes.

“This myth was recently exploded by Farhat Taj in her article ‘Drone attacks: challenging some fabrications’, published recently in a national daily. Dr Taj is an academic at the University of Oslo, but more importantly, she comes from the region and has a degree of access to tribal Pakhtuns that is rare.”

Here is what Taj had to say in an article in the Daily Times:

“The people of Waziristan are suffering a brutal kind of occupation under the Taliban and al Qaeda. It is in this context that they would welcome anyone, Americans, Israelis, Indians or even the devil, to rid them of the Taliban and al Qaeda. Therefore, they welcome the drone attacks,” she writes.

“Secondly, the people feel comfortable with the drones because of their precision and targeted strikes. People usually appreciate drone attacks when they compare it with the Pakistan Army’s attacks, which always result in collateral damage. Especially the people of Waziristan have been terrified by the use of long-range artillery and air strikes of the Pakistan Army and Air Force.”

The conventional view is that attacks by drones, widely assumed to be run by the CIA but never publicly acknowledged by the United States, are deeply unpopular in Pakistan because they cause civilian casualties and are seen as an invasion of sovereignty.

But Taj writes that no one is in a position to find out about civilian casualties from drone attacks in places like South Waziristan – the area is off-limits for journalists – and nor are they seen by the people there as an invasion of sovereignty.

“What we read and hear in the print and electronic media of Pakistan about drone attacks as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty or resulting in killing innocent civilians is not true so far as the people of Waziristan are concerned. According to them, al Qaeda and the TTP (the Pakistani Taliban) are dead scared of drone attacks and their leadership spends sleepless nights. This is a cause of pleasure for the tormented people of Waziristan.”

There are other criticisms of drone attacks — that they fuel anti-Americanism in a way which can be counter-productive by undermining U.S. efforts to convince Pakistan and its people to turn against all Islamist militants operating from its territory.

They remain firmly under U.S. control, raising fears in Pakistan of an escalation that could be damaging to Pakistani interests – for example through an escalation of drone attacks in the tribal areas in revenge for the suicide bomb attack on CIA agents in Afghanistan, or worse an expansion into its restive Baluchistan province,  where Washington says the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar are based.

The secrecy surrounding the drone operations does not help in a country which is already rich in conspiracy theories and where many still prefer to blame the United States/India/Israel for a spate of gun and bomb attacks rather than Islamist militants.

And there are those who argue that the widespread introduction of any new weapon – as is the case with remote-controlled aircraft armed with powerful missiles – is inherently dangerous in the long-term.

So the debate about drones is likely to run and run. (Andrew Exum has just put up a post on the subject).

Taj’s piece, however, whether you agree with her or not, is at least a reminder of how little we know, and understand, about the drone war.

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