Drone politics

Daily: The News
Date: 22.04.11

In the known history of drone strikes on the tribal belt of Pakistan, it was the first time, on
March 17, when Pakistan’s Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kiyani issued a written
statement condemning the drone strike which devoured more than 50 innocent lives
including tribal elders and children, besides wounding scores of others, in the Dattakhel
area, North Waziristan.

In opinion of some people such a statement was long overdue; some people think that mere
condemnation was insufficient to match atrocities inflicted on unarmed people assembled
for a meeting (jirga) to resolve a dispute between two parties; and some people consider
that it was the duty of the prime minister to respond instead.

Felt emboldened by the statement of General Kiyani, several political leaders have
galvanized into action to show solidarity with the tribal people. Be it Altaf Hussain (MQM),
Imran Khan (PTI) or Shahbaz Sharif (PML-N), none of them is ready to squander the
opportunity for avowing the anti-drone stance of his party. Several times before did
innocent civilians succumb to drone attacks but no politician staged any protest; even
parliament could not go beyond passing merely a protest resolution against drone strikes.
The response of politicians indicates that the army has not yet lost its political appeal. The
PPP is in the government (and nursing a few compromises) otherwise it might have also in
the forefront of such a protest to engorge its vote bank. Any idea broached by the army is
lapped up by Pakistani politicians. That is the way a politician secures an enviable position
in the good books of the army. When will politicians lead the army is still not known?

Nonetheless, a question peeves minds of many why did General Kiyani speak against
drone strikes now and not before, as the strikes were escalated in 2008 and they claimed a
higher human toll in 2010. The answer lies in the Raymond David case which engendered
troubles for both Pakistan and US owing to at least two reasons. First, in Raymond’s case,
the ISI was implicated (if not alleged) to have managed the release (or deal). The
accusation blighted reputation of the ISI (and the army) in Pakistan for being hand in glove
with the CIA. Interestingly, Raymond’s detention period remained free of drone strikes.
Secondly, it was construed that Raymond-like CIA operatives must be lurking around with
the complicity (or the supposed ignorance) of the ISI. These points strained the relations
between civilians (including those inhabiting the tribal areas) and the army.

In reprisal for the disgrace faced by the CIA in due course of (Raymond’s incarceration)
time, the CIA spewed its venom through the drone strike immediately after Raymond’s
release. Nevertheless, after getting its agitation recorded with the US ambassador at the
diplomatic level, the government has decided to compensate the victims monetarily.

Retrospectively, had Raymond not been captured, the drone strike on March 17 would
have created no hullabaloo and the consequent human casualties would have stirred no
quarters into action. Similarly, had the casualties not in the immediate post-Raymond-
release scenario, neither would any word of condemnation have been issued nor any
penny of compensation would have been paid to the victims. It is, however, yet to be seen if
it was a one-time episode of condemnation and compensation or the practise will carry on.

Since 2010, the US has increased frequency of drone strikes, besides broadening their
target base. Secondly, the US has unilaterally increased the number of Raymond-like
machinist in Pakistan. Taken together, both points indicate that the US has accelerated the
war on terror in the tribal area of Pakistan; that the US has expanded the CIA-base in
Pakistan; and that the US is now predicating less on the ISI and more on its own men and
material. On the other hand, General Kiyani has given an assurance to the tribal people
that they would be protected in the future; how will that be ascertained is still not known.

Regarding the anti-drone strategy, there are two options available with Pakistan. The first
option is to curb the strikes. Drones can be shot at but, perceivably, a war may break out
consequently between the US-NATO forces and the Pakistani forces. Pakistan cannot
afford that for obvious reasons. The UN mandate given to the US-NATO forces in 2001 was
to stay in Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. Afterwards, as per the Af-Pak
policy announced by Barack Obama in March 2009, the tribal belt of Pakistan was included
in Afghanistan for operational purposes. At least publicly, Pakistan did not object to that
sort of diplomatic relegation. The US-NATO forces claim – or play a blame-game – that their
failure in Afghanistan is because of insurgents’ planning and attacking them from across
the Pakistani border. Though the term Af-Pak was abandoned by the US in January 2010,
the policy is still functional with all its necessary details. Resultantly, every gathering (be it
social or political) in the Pakistani tribal belt is seen with suspicion and consequently a pre-
emptive drone strike is enforced. Hence neither can Pakistan curtail frequency of drone
strikes nor can Pakistan compel the US to narrow down the target base of drone strikes.

The second option with Pakistan is to live with drone strikes. There are two ways to do that.
First, establish a liaison with drone handlers (the CIA) to inform them through a proper
channel if there is a socio-political gathering taking place in the tribal belt; if drone strikes
are unavoidable, they must be humanized to minimize the loss of innocent lives. Second,
educate drone handlers to appreciate tribal traditions. In line with the Af-Pak policy, if the
US intends to daunt the bad Taliban and promote the good Taliban, the US should be
made realize that indiscriminate drone attacks enrage the local people. Consequently, the
repertoire of the good Taliban may shrink while the ranks of the bad Taliban may swell (to
gang up with al-Qaeda) – to the detriment of both Pakistan and US.

Nevertheless, perilous in the Pak-US context is insistence of Pakistan to have a control over
the drone-arm of the war. Owning drone strikes as a solution to the current predicament
enfolds far reaching repercussions for Pakistan.

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