Failing to learn: US resumes drone attacks in Pakistan

January 11, 2012

When Pakistan’s Express Tribune wrote this week that the CIA was likely to resume drone strikes for the first time since November, it included a quote from an unnamed Pakistani official saying that Pakistani authorities believed drones were “strategically harmful but tactically advantageous”.  I tweeted the link and asked who would explain to the Pakistani public that the drone strikes – which have fuelled intense anti-Americanism – were seen even in their own country as “tactically advantageous”.

One of the answers was particularly telling. It was from a supporter of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) of former cricketer Imran Khan – who has risen in popularity on a wave of anti-Americanism, opposition to drone strikes, and belief the government of President Asif Ali Zardari has sold out to the United States. Here is the tweet:

“I find this so infuriating. It is about time the present #Zardari administration was shown the door. #PTI for #Pakistan

Yet the popular view that American money is being used to bribe Zardari into allowing the country to be attacked by U.S. missiles has no basis in reality. In as much as drone strikes are discussed with Pakistan – and there is a great deal of disagreement about how far they should be used - the “red lines” have been negotiated with the Pakistan Army, which controls foreign and security policy.  Such is the lack of transparency in Pakistan.

But if that seems too strange, then let’s look at the approach in the United States to drones.  We might, perhaps, have expected it to use the pause in drone strikes to improve their transparency. Indeed, given their impact in fuelling anti-Americanism, Washington might have considered publishing some photographs to prove its contention that the drone strikes do not cause the kind of civilian casualties assumed in Pakistan? After all, if Iran could down a drone and gain  access to U.S. technology, how much more can be given away in a photograph?

Yet instead, we had a leaked story from the New York Times that the pause in drone strikes was allowing al Qaeda and Pakistani militants to regroup.  (Note to the U.S. administration – rightly or wrongly, a leaked story in the NYT is seen in Pakistan as a statement of policy so it would be far better to come out and say it yourself.) And sure enough, just days after that story, the United States resumed drone attacks.

The big problem with this lack of transparency is that it has become almost impossible to discuss the merits of drone strikes rationally. That has been lethal to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship; it is damaging to the U.S. image in the world as a whole; and it is also distorting Pakistan’s current struggle for power between the civilian government and the military.

At issue is not drones per se. As U.S. blogger Dan Trombly has argued, drones are just another weapon of war.  We humans have an understandably powerful fear of air power, but it has been around for a while – please look at Picasso’s Guernica for an early 20th century European example.  And those of us who have rarely witnessed war first hand tend to be very squeamish about what it actually means.  Go back another century or so and consider Prince Andrei’s views in ’War and Peace’: War is not a polite recreation but the vilest thing in life.  And we ought to understand that and not play at war.  The aim and end of war is murder.”

The question is not whether we should be using drones but whether we should be at war in the first place in Pakistan’s tribal areas.  On this, the United States and Pakistan half-agree and half-disagree  and as a result there is no clear legal basis or mutual consent for the use of drones – or for that matter any other weapon.  You can argue that peace talks – on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – might or might not be more effective. But that is a different subject.  The problem with drones is the way in which Pakistan and the United States have got themselves tangled up in an unacknowledged military campaign. And it’s a campaign in which they disagree over the enemy.

The United States uses drones to attack members of al Qaeda and other militant groups which it believes either pose a threat to U.S. citizens at home, or to U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.  As a result, Pakistanis believe the country’s sovereignty is being breached and Pakistanis killed to save American lives.

Yet at other times, the drones are also used to kill members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who are threatening Pakistani lives. By many accounts, it was Pakistan which insisted that TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud be targetted in 2009 as part of a secret understanding with the United States. At the time, his death was welcomed by most Pakistanis. But when this led to an even more lethal campaign of bombings by his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, Pakistanis found it easy to blame U.S. drones for causing chaos in their cities.

Then, to make it even more complicated, U.S. drones have also targeted the Haqqani network, described in Admiral Mike Mullen’s now (in)famous phrase as the “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. If Mullen’s allegations were true – and Pakistan has denied it – it would be reasonable to predict that the ISI would, in response, whip up popular sentiment against the use of drones even if at times it found their use “tactically advantageous”.

Finally, let’s add one more complication. The tribal areas of Pakistan do not enjoy the kind of representation that would allow them to speak for themselves about how they feel about drones. While the drone bombings are condemned inside Pakistan, they are rarely compared to other possibilities faced by people in the region - including repressive and violent rule by the Pakistani Taliban, or Pakistani military action through air and artillery strikes.

Moreover, the people of FATA remain subject to the Frontier Crimes Regulation – a British colonial-era law which allows for collective punishment, and which is only slowly being reformed. While the public in “mainland”  Pakistan resents what it sees as exploitation of human rights by the United States in its use of drones, so too does Pakistan continue to treat the tribal areas as a place where the rule of law, and the rights of individual citizens, does not apply.

In short, it is a mess, and one in which both the United States and Pakistan can, and do, blame the other for the way the tribal areas are handled.

Pakistan blames the United States for drone strikes. The United States blames Pakistan for failing to tackle what it sees as a safe haven for terrorism.  The propaganda on both sides is easy enough to whip up since none of us know what is actually going on inside FATA. Caught between the Pakistan Army, the Taliban and the American drone strikes, the people there are too afraid to speak.

The long pause in U.S. drone strikes might have given both countries time to find a way out of that impasse. We might have had more  transparency – maybe even some evidence of the supposed accuracy of drone strikes. Instead we were informed via some media leaks what to expect, and then were back to business as usual.  Perhaps the most accurate definition of the drone war which has been fought over the tribal areas of Pakistan would be this - making the same mistake over and over and expecting a different outcome.

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