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.

Comments

Drone attacks should be extended into Quetta where Mullah Omar and his concubines are parked. It must also be extended into South Punjab where Madrasas are breeding Ajmal Kasabs. In addition, LeT, JuD,head quarters and ISI S wing etc should be demolished with drones. This way, the bad guys will be eliminated once in for all.

If they could send the drones to Mumbai and knock out Shiv Sena head quarters, it would be much appreciated as well. Would Pakistan be interested in exchanging Advani, Bal Thackery, his son and son-in-law in exchange for Dawood Ibrahim? Sorry for the distraction.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive
 

Drones are the most effective way to deal with the current situation in the tribal areas. The solution to the tribal areas which house all the terror camps is boots on the ground, and an offensive of hold, clear, and build. However, the case of US boots will never happen and I don’t see Pak Military going there in full force in the foreseeable future.

In terms of weakening of the civilian government in Pakistan, the blame has to be shared with Pakistan’s military. Their reluctance to not say anything is horrible. They leave the civilians to hold the bag, but on top of it, the civilians themselves start to play their own double game. The civilians see the political capital that is present when you criticize the West, and they are more than happy to make use of it.

This is the environment which the West has to function in. Therefore, drones make logical sense and allow the mission in Afghanistan to move forward by keeping the cancers in the tribal areas below a a certain point.

Posted by rainydays | Report as abusive
 

If the top brass of the Pakistani army, secretly acknowledges that the drones mostly knock down the bad guys instead of civilians, why don’t they make it public & stem the rising anti-Americanism amongst Pakistani people? The only answer to this question is that they sinmply don’t want to.

Posted by Mortal1 | Report as abusive
 

The world attention has diminished towards Pakistan. There are a lot of new high priority items that need international attention – the revolution spreading in the Middle East, Libyan civil war and now the earth quake disaster in Japan. Pakistan can breathe easy.

However, it is up to the Pakistani military and its sundry non-state actor divisions to think of the future and the consequences of their decisions. There is a golden opportunity to lay down all the arms and start on a fresh note. Instead if they decide to capitalize on lack of world attention to regroup and stage attacks, it will bear long term consequences that will be undesirable for them. In 1988, world attention diminished against Pakistan after the Soviet defeat. There was plenty of opportunity to plan for progress and peace at that time. But the military’s warped heads decided to launch the next Jihad against India. It has brought the US to the door and Pakistan is bearing the consequences of the decisions made at that time. Therefore it is important for Pakistan not to commit the same mistake again or commit new ones. It is time for Pakistan to abandon muscling methods and work sincerely towards peace and progress. Let us see if they realize this and do the right thing.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive
 

I wonder what will happen to Maj. Gen. Mehmood Ghayur now. (He’s the one who unwittingly let slip the truth that drones are highly effective.) Pakistani officialdom straddles many irreconcilable contradictions between official pronouncements and actual policy, and this is another embarrassment for them.

Regards,
Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive
 

Noted Bookings analyst Stephen Cohen, on the future of Pakistan:

http://www.brookings.edu/papers/2011/01_ pakistan_cohen.aspx

Posted by Mortal1 | Report as abusive
 

KPS
“There is a golden opportunity to lay down all the arms”
I’m shaking in my boots, Sir. When are you coming to collect the arms? Are you going to assign a new caste below untouchables?

Posted by Matrixx | Report as abusive
 

@”>> That was a nice report. Thanks for sharing. Noted BBC report on the PRESENT situation in India: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7557107.stm”
Posted by shahidkhan123

I wouldn’t say that a 3 year old extraneous news item about a dumb proposal of a sacked official in the poorest Indian state, quite reflects the PRESENT situation in India. But nice try anyways :)

Posted by Mortal1 | Report as abusive
 

Shahid
Bro. you are bitingly good.

Posted by Matrixx | Report as abusive
 

Shahidkhan: “I’m shaking in my boots, Sir. When are you coming to collect the arms? Are you going to assign a new caste below untouchables?”

You can surrender if you want. But that was not my point. I was talking about giving up reliance on Jihad based terrorism as a means to try controlling the region. It did not work. Instead of focusing on building the nation, your military tried to destroy its neighbor by using proxy wars. All the energy was spent on supporting Jihad to such an extent that there is nothing left but Mumtaz Qadris and Ajmal Kasabs. It is a result of poor choice in 1989. Since there is nothing else left in your wonderful country other than a military, I am trying to see if there is any hope for a new choice that gives up the old beliefs. This is because this old belief has brought your country to where it is and brought a war right at your border. Militants are blowing people up. This was something your military and countrymen planned for India. But your thick skull did not get the message. You have taken off tangentially as usual.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive
 

Shahidkhan: “Inwardly, they hate us because we represent historical islamic primacy in south asia and the rejection of modern-india.”

You not only reject modern India, but also the modern world. And you have what your inner heart desires – radical Islam running through the veins of more and more people. You do not represent Islamic primacy anywhere. We have an equal number of Muslims in our country as well. We do not hate people for being Muslims and that too primate ones at that.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive
 

Shahidkhan123 said:

> That was a nice report. Thanks for sharing. Noted BBC report on the PRESENT situation in India: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7557107.stm

Seems the Indian official is ahead of his time: http://bbc.in/fMquUO

> we represent historical islamic primacy in south asia and the rejection of modern-india.

Why so modest? Islamic primacy in South Asia is not just historical, because 2011 isn’t ancient history either: http://bit.ly/frxHfG

Modern India isn’t the only modern thing being rejected, apparently.

Tell you what. I realise it must be really hard to keep up this schizophrenic act of issuing liberal statements in favour of protection of minorities on the one hand, and upholding Islamic primacy on the other. We won’t mind if you let go one of them. I believe it would be easier to drop the liberal facade.

Regards,
Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive
 

Shahidkhan: :That was a nice report. Thanks for sharing. Noted BBC report on the PRESENT situation in India: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7557107.stm

In your all weather friend China, they eat snakes, lizards and what not. Somehow when they do it, your sycophant instinct prevents you from pointing at that. With world’s population exploding and resources thinning, humans might be forced to eat anything that moves. But you guys have decided to eat grass in order to make a nuclear war head for each citizen of your country. So go on ahead.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive
 

I thought I saw a response by Shahidkhan123 about Siachen not being a no-man’s land but I can’t find the comment now.

Siachen is nowhere near the Pakistan border but deep inside Kashmir bordering Ladakh. Take a look at any map. Siachen is even further East than Gilgit-Baltistan which Pakistan occupied in 1947-48. It was not possible for Pakistan to take Siachen as part of that assault because it was inaccessible and inhospitable. Therefore it was never Pakistani territory at any time in history.

Visas to mountaineers: Mountaineers wishing to climb Mt. Everest from the Nepali or the Tibetan side will have to apply for a visa either to Nepal or China, as the case may be. That’s because the *access routes* lie in either country. Issuing of visas can’t be a proof that Mt Everest belongs to one or the other country. In retrospect, it would seem that Pakistan issuing visas to mountaineers was part of the propaganda to establish Pakistani ownership of a no-man’s land.

Both sides had been trying to take Siachen for a long time. Nature was the bigger enemy because of the extreme conditions and that is what kept it a no-man’s land until 1984. It so happened that India won that race. It’s a stretch to say that India occupied Pakistani territory.

For a mind focused on grievances, it’s of course impossible to take a balanced view.

Regards,
Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive
 

Ghayoor khan’s statement eminds me of the General who in the colonial days ordered the massacre of Sikhs civilians, men women and children who defied the ban on assembly and were listening to the speech of their leader. Almost no one escaped from the massacre. When asked in the enquiry of this mass murder if in his view women and children were also radical sikhs. His answer was that no one can prove that they were not!!

General Ghayoor sould be put on trial to prove that the ones who died were radicals? I would regard Gen. Ghayoor as radical and coward, no different from his ex Boss Musharaf Din who is having ice cream with Arab asylum seekers on Edgware road in London. We know from history that the British General who ordered the murder of innocents went scot free .

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

Drone attacks success or failure can not measured unless each victim is identified properly with the help of elders in the targeted area. It may take time and efforts but this excerise will be well worth to prove the concrete evidence in the international court of Crimes agaist Humanity. This will also ensure that controllers of Drone attacks have very serious sense of obligation. Over the years we have seens many photos of womens children and elderly killed in Drone attacks specially when village JIRGAs were targeted. IT seesm that when ever the Droine controllers see a group in the camera they just go wild gungho and fire the missiles with having a second thought that it may a local festive party or dispute settlement JIGA as was the yesterdays case.

Posted by Facetruth | Report as abusive
 

Hello Friends,
I’ve visited Waziristan (South) in last week, and found a much and more aggression against drone attacks. It is just because of false propaganda by some of political figures who wants to cash themselves.

Posted by faryal | Report as abusive
 

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