Pakistan’s debate on drones, lifting the secrecy

March 10, 2011

droneIn a rare admission of the effectiveness of drone strikes, a senior Pakistani military officer has said most of those killed are hard-core militants, including foreigners, according to Dawn newspaper.

It quotes Major-General Ghayur Mehmood as telling reporters at a briefing in Miramshah, in North Waziristan, that, “Myths and rumours about US predator strikes and the casualty figures are many, but it’s a reality that many of those being killed in these strikes are hardcore elements, a sizeable number of them foreigners.”

“Yes there are a few civilian casualties in such precision strikes, but a majority of those eliminated are terrorists, including foreign terrorist elements,” he said.

The comments may not have been entirely authorised — the New York Times quoted Pakistan Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas as playing down the remarks. Abbas called them a “personal assessment”. ”General Abbas emphasised that the army supported the public policy of the government that drone strikes inside Pakistani territory ‘do more harm than good’,” the newspaper said.

And nor were they an unqualified endorsement of the attacks in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.  According to Dawn, “Maj-Gen Ghayur, who is in charge of troops in North Waziristan, admitted that the drone attacks had negative fallout, scaring the local population and causing their migration to other places. Gen Ghayur said the drone attacks also had social and political repercussions and law-enforcement agencies often felt the heat.”

But it is unlikely that such a high-ranking officer would have made such comments if they did not reflect the thinking of the army leadership.  The big question now is on whether they have lifted the lid on what has become a truly poisonous debate within Pakistan on drone attacks.

It has long been an open secret that the drone attacks are carried out with the tacit endorsement of the Pakistani military, with Pakistani intelligence helping to identify targets on the ground.  Yet their covert nature, and a widespread view propagated by some sections of the media that most of those killed are civilians, has fuelled anti-Americanism and stoked conspiracy theories about U.S. intentions in Pakistan.

The debate about drone attacks, both in the west and in Pakistan, has always been about two quite different issues – although these are rarely distinguished.

The first part of the debate is on whether they are the most effective way of tackling insurgents - as opposed to ground assaults or conventional air strikes.  Since the tribal areas are off limits to most journalists, except on military-organised trips, we are never going to get a clear answer on that.  The New America Foundation has set up a database on drone attacks based on press accounts, and estimates civilian casualties at approximately 21 percent since 2004, but dropping to six percent in 2010.

In January last year, Pakistani academic Farhat Taj argued that people in the tribal areas actually welcomed the drone attacks.

“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 wrote in the Daily Times.

“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.”

According to a 2009 study by the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy (AIRRA), of which Farhat Taj is a member, and quoted by The Express Tribune,  a narrow majority (52 percent) believed drone attacks were accurate; a larger majority (58 percent) believed they did not increase anti-American feelings in the tribal areas;  while 60 percent believed militant organisations were damaged by the strikes.

Anecdotal evidence also backs up the New America Foundation’s assessment that the proportion of civilian casualties has declined since drone strikes began,  due to improved intelligence gathering and coordination between the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.  

Within this first part of the debate on the effectiveness of drones, there are counter-arguments — among them that they are only a short-term expedient which can be no substitute for the long-term need for effective governance and economic development in the tribal areas. But it is possible to remain rational.

It is in the second part of the debate — about whether strategically they make sense — that the issues become much more complex.  If the majority of people in Pakistan outside the tribal areas believe that drone strikes cause disproportionately large numbers of civilian casualties — then every attack fuels anti-Americanism which in turn produces more support for militant groups.

This discontent provides easy pickings for opposition politicians to rail against the drone strikes, presenting themselves as the champion of the people riding a populist wave of anti-American sentiment. The target of their wrath is usually the government for allegedly collaborating with the Americans — even though it is the military that determines security policy in the tribal areas. That in turn further weakens Pakistan’s fragile democracy by giving the impression civilian rulers are unable, or unwilling, to stand up to the United States.

The covert nature of the drone programme also encourages conspiracy theories about what exactly the Americans are up to in Pakistan, as highlighted by the row over the Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis in Lahore.  The full details of what he was doing in Pakistan remain murky (Christine Fair writes that he may have been providing security for a CIA cell tracking the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group.) But that did not stop the media from going to town on everything from Davis’s alleged addiction to naswar, or chewing tobacco, to his purported enthusiasm for Ludo, to what, each time there is a row, invariably ends up at a CIA/Mossad/R&AW plot to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

In other words, the anger caused by drone attacks encourages everything the United States says it wants to prevent – distrust of America, cynicism about the effectiveness of a democratically elected government, and a widespread belief that Washington rather than al Qaeda and its cohorts is the enemy. Within Pakistan – which bears the brunt of Islamist militancy – it fuels a poisonous debate which pits one group against another with often violent consequences.

Arguably, Pakistan is not going to escape that morass until its people are allowed to have a properly informed, mature debate not just about the effectiveness of drone attacks but about how they want to shape the future of the tribal areas. Lifting the secrecy on drones would be a start.

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