Ambiguous, embittering and unstoppable: U.S. drones in Pakistan

May 1, 2012

One of the most frustrating aspects of the debate on drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas is that it rests on a tangle of assumptions on which neither Washington nor Islamabad can agree. The result is a corrosive discussion which undermines U.S.  legitimacy and gives Pakistanis a focus for anti-Americanism which drowns out all other issues, including how militancy should be tackled and the Afghan war brought to an end.

This week the United States and Pakistan again publicly contradicted each other on the use of drones. While top White House official John Brennan described drone attacks as legal, ethical and wise, Pakistan lodged a formal protest against the latest strike on its tribal areas while its foreign ministry condemned it as a “total contravention of international law”. The hardening of Pakistan’s attitude to drones – it has shifted from tacit approval and token condemnation to more vocal opposition – overlaps with a dispute over Washington’s refusal to apologise formally for a NATO attack which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border last year. Pakistan has insisted on an apology before it reopens supply routes for troops in Afghanistan, closed since the attack.

None of this will be resolved soon. President Barack Obama is unlikely to offer up any apology which might compromise his projected image as a leader who is tough on terrorism ahead of November’s presidential election. For now, foreign troops in Afghanistan are surviving without the Pakistani routes, either flying supplies in by air or using the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which Washington has been expanding specifically to reduce its dependence on Pakistan. And while the United States has slowed the use of drones, it has made clear they will not be stopped. In Pakistan, where anti-Americanism is running high,the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) cannot be seen to back-pedal on a stance taken by Pakistan’s parliament demanding an end to drone strikes and a full apology for cross-border attack. With a political crisis brewing after the conviction for contempt of court of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, it may well be facing elections this year. The result of the electoral compulsions in both the United States and Pakistan will be drift, a continued cooling of relations between Washington and Islamabad without the catharsis of a real rupture, accompanied by a spitting, angry frustration, much of which, for now, is focused on drones.

There are no easy answers. Those who draw a moral line in the sand saying drone attacks are “extra-judicial executions” have yet to offer a viable alternative to end the murder of civilians of all nationalities by militants who themselves operate outside of the law (and which does not produce more civilian casualties than drone strikes). Those who defend drones ignore the many ambiguities of the missile campaign in terms of respect for sovereignty, the exercise of the power of the state, and international law, all of which set a dangerous precedent for which we may all eventually pay dearly.

The drone campaign, can however, at least be broken down into the three different but overlapping motivations. The United States believes Pakistan is either actively supporting or passively harbouring militants (the degree of passive vs active support is bitterly contested) who 1) pose a threat to US and western domestic security 2) compromise its campaign in Afghanistan and 3) endanger stability in Pakistan itself. Drone bombings are still seen as an effective way of preventing acts of terrorism in the west, reducing militant attacks in Afghanistan, and curbing the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, who have waged a bombing campaign on Pakistani cities.

Start with the threat of terrorism in the west. None of the experts can agree how big that risk remains and it is therefore impossible for outsiders to judge whether the drone strikes are proportional to the threat. Moreover, killing Pakistanis (along with foreign fighters) to prevent a potential threat to western lives is never going to be seen as ethical in Pakistan, no matter what John Brennan may say. And arguably, Pakistani intelligence cooperation is more valuable – any reduction in intel-sharing caused by the drones row would put the west at greater risk of attack from militants based both in the tribal areas and in Pakistan’s heartland. That said, politically, no American president would take the risk of halting drones strikes if it were seen to expose the United States to a higher threat of terrorism. Practically, from a Pakistani point of view, its intelligence cooperation and earlier tolerance of drones is also motivated by a desire to avoid the certain retribution it would face were an attack on the United States to be traced back to Pakistan. And legally/ethically, opposition to drones as “extra-judicial executions” invites the question of what would happen if the United States were actually to declare war on Pakistan.

Coming to the war in Afghanistan, the arguments for drones are marginally clearer in as much as the threat from militants in the tribal areas is more proximate and real both to Afghans and foreign troops. The arguments here become somewhat self-referential. The United States chose to occupy Afghanistan; it chooses to pursue its military campaign in a particular way; as a result of these choices, it says drone strikes are necessary; it alone chooses the targets. For those Pakistanis who do not think the United States should be in Afghanistan in the first place; or who believe the strategy it has followed has been badly flawed, or who distrust the targetting choices, those arguments carry no weight. Rather they would inclined to see the drone strikes as an extension of neo-colonial power.

However, the reality is, whatever the rights and wrongs of the past, U.S. and NATO soldiers are there in Afghanistan. Even if they wanted to pull out faster than the end-2014 deadline, logistically it would not be possible. And by many accounts, Afghans on the whole would prefer a gradual and organised withdrawal of foreign troops rather than have their country handed over to the Taliban or to civil war. Many of them welcome the drone strikes if they keep militant attacks at bay. In other words, framing drones as a form of western imperialism fails to account for the views of those Afghans who themselves resent Pakistani interference in their country.

Practically, Pakistan has little means of ending the drone strikes. It can’t shoot down drones without inviting U.S. attacks on its air defences (the Americans, with their far greater military firepower, have escalatory dominance here.) Nor is Pakistan in a particularly strong position to leverage its ability to deliver the Afghan Taliban into early peace talks. Talks so far have made little progress – the Taliban approach has been tactical on issues like getting their prisoners released, rather than strategic. Moreover, before the Taliban can be accommodated politically, Afghans have first to find a framework for a political settlement which involves all stakeholders, and address what to do about the presidential election due in 2014, including finding a successor to President Hamid Karzai. As things stand, it is looking increasingly likely that any deal with the Taliban, if at all, will take place after, rather than before, 2014. In the meantime, Washington and its allies are building up the Afghan army so that it can just about survive on its own after 2014, helped by US special forces, and crucially with or without cooperation from Pakistan.      

As Afghanistan’s neighbour, Pakistan has legitimate security concerns. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are to be built up to reach 352,000 men by October 2012 – potentially posing a threat to Pakistan. Moreover Afghanistan has never recognised the border with Pakistan, the colonial-era Durand Line, and some of its nationalists still dream of a country which stretches as far as the Indus. India meanwhile is building up its presence in Afghanistan. Focusing on drones, however, leaves Pakistan little leeway to negotiate on these broader security concerns. It does have the capacity to act as spoiler, and indeed to depend on militant proxies – including the Haqqani network – to defend its western flank. Yet Pakistan’s hand is not particularly strong. In its efforts to coax Pakistan on board in the Afghan campaign, the United States has so far avoided seriously tough measures like declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, imposing sanctions against its military and intelligence service, and squeezing financial support, including from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to an already crippled economy. If the United States is not taking these tougher measures, it is less because it is dependent on Pakistan’s help and more because it fears the damage to Pakistan itself. In other words, Pakistan’s strongest hand lies in its own destruction.

Finally, there is the question of protecting Pakistan from attacks by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. This is a problematic justification for drones since parliament and the government have taken a strong stand against them. That said, there is some evidence to suggest drone attacks have reduced the threat to Pakistani towns and cities. Anecdotal evidence by journalists who have studied the situation in FATA also suggests the people actually living there - and therefore those who should have the greatest say – prefer drone strikes as the least bad option compared to either Pakistani military campaigns and aerial bombings (which cause more civilian casualties), or to life under the Taliban (who also kill civilians). The most vociferous opponents of the drone bombings – among them rising politician Imran Khan and the Difa-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) Council – are often the least likely to condemn either Taliban violence or actions by the Pakistani military. Ending drone strikes (in the absence of a peace deal) could also lead to far greater deaths among both civilians and ordinary Pakistani soldiers were the Pakistan army forced into expanding its ground offensives in the tribal areas. Pakistan itself has asked the United States in the past to provide it with its own drones for use in the tribal areas – by that logic, the issue therefore is not the missile strikes per se (drones are just another weapon of war), but rather their use by the United States and its monopoly on the choice of targets.

In the meantime, there is little evidence that peace overtures to the Pakistani Taliban – the most frequently cited alternative to drones – are making much headway; nor does there appear to be a clear plan on how to impose peace if the other side, including foreign fighters, does not want to negotiate. In the long run, peace in the tribal areas would probably require them to be incorporated politically into Pakistan – the people are still subject to colonial-era laws on collective punishment – and given both economic development and full citizenship rights.  At the same time there would need to be some kind of settlement which ended the border dispute with Afghanistan. That is going to take a long time, but is probably far more important than drones both in dealing with Pakistan’s “ungoverned spaces” and in making a difference to real people’s lives.

Drones, like any other form of warfare, are a short-term expediency and evidence of political failure.  In that sense, both opposing and defending drones cannot really be framed in ethical terms in isolation from the broader issues.  The west ought to find a way of dealing with terrorism without drone bombing another country; Afghanistan needs, and certainly deserves after 30 years of war, a fair and peaceful settlement; the people in the tribal areas should be given equal rights as full citizens of Pakistan. Framed in practical terms of hard national interest, the United States will continue to use drones, while Pakistan may lose out on its bigger strategic concerns if it ends up on a collision course over the missile strikes. And realistically? The spitting, emotional debate over drones will continue.

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