The May 29, 2013 drone attack by the United States killing seven people including Waliur Rahman, a top leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has renewed with greater intensity than before a debate that underscores not just anger in Pakistan, but also its helplessness at being able to do little beyond lodging protests. The newly-elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took over a week to summon US Charge d’Affaires Richard Hoagland to the Foreign Office to lodge a formal protest at the violation of its territorial sovereignty. It was the tenth time that an American official had to listen to Pakistani “umbrage” over the 353rd drone strike in Pakistani territory.
“Drone attacks are violating our sovereignty as well as international laws. Drone attacks must stop. We have protested many a time. This is simply unacceptable,” Sharif was quoted as saying in a statement issued by his office on June 8.
Like the past governments of Pervez Musharraf and Asif Ali Zardari, the just-elected government of Nawaz Sharif is facing the same set of issues. There is greater intensity because Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the rival Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan had successfully garnered long-standing popular sentiment against drone attacks during the campaign for the May elections. Despite differences on other issues, both are on the same page on this issue. Imran Khan is more combative, being in the Opposition and in power in the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The PTI’s debutante lawmaker and noted security expert, Shirin Mazari, has submitted a draft resolution demanding that the Sharif Government demand of the US that the drone attacks be stopped forthwith and “if need be, use force”. This has embarrassed the government that is engaged in talking to the US on the entire range of bilateral issues and to facilitate the military drawdown by the NATO members from the landlocked neighbour, Afghanistan.
President Asif Ali Zardari, whose Pakistan People’s Party headed the government during 2008-March 2013, expressed ‘helplessness’ while talking to the media after his party lost the election. “Even if you shoot down a drone, what next?” he reportedly asked. “Drone attacks are a serious violation of sovereignty and inter-national law. They are also counterproductive and are not acceptable,” Zardari said as he opened the new parliament. The Friday Times editor Najam Sethi, in his editorial (June 14-20, 2013, Vol. XXV, No. 18), commented: “This comes from the leader of a government that implicitly allowed drone attacks, as did the Musharraf regime earlier, on the advice of the military, and echoes another handwringing dilemma for the Sharif regime.”
Stressing on the role the drone attacks are playing and can be expected to play as long as the Western forces are operating in Afghanistan – and perhaps, subsequently as well — targeting the militants’ safe havens in Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) region, Sethi concludes: “The drones are sorely needed against the TTP liability but also hurt the Haqqani-network assets of Pakistan in the Af-Pak endgame.” (The TTP is a ‘liability’ because it is fighting the Pakistan Army that considers the Haqqani network as ‘assets’ because it is used by the ISI for attacking the Karzai Government in Kabul and Indian establishments.) The debate is not confined to Pakistan. In the US and Britain also the “Afghanistan fatigue” is generating questions by think-tanks and human rights bodies about the legality of the drone attacks.
There is also an India angle to the drone debate. In the same issue of The Friday Times, analyst Imtiaz Gul writes: “UN officials, analysts and ex-security officials in the US and the UK are also looking at the issue more in the international law perspective than the perspective of utility. They are also seized with the spectre of a third country, say India, using the same technology invoking the pretext of “terrorist camps inside Pakistan”, or Pakistan launching such “pre-emptive strikes against persons or groups considered detrimental to Pakistani interests”. Gul acknowledges that “Drones have a certain utility for all. Besides three dozen Arab and African Al-Qaeda militants targeted by the US, drones have also killed Baitullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain, Ilyas Kashmiri, Waliur Rehman—all Pakistanis but avowed enemies of Pakistan.”
He suggests that the Sharif Government review its policy of opposing drone strikes. Following an assurance from the US that it would not impinge on Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty, Pakistan could call the drone attacks “joint operation”. This is most unlikely to happen, given Pakistan’s political scenario. The direct repercussions of a US-Pakistan cooperation on drones would be a storm of suicide bombings and explosions that could hit the entire Pakistan. Since militancy has already spread outside the tribal areas, even Punjab could not remain immune with paradise-seeking bomb-laden youths emerging from the madrassahs of South Punjab and spreading all over the land to make things difficult for the Sharif Government, the Army and the people in general.
The impact of drones on the general populace has been debated for long. Karzai talks of innocent, unarmed civilians—in some cases marriage processions—being mistakenly targeted with as much vehemence as any Pakistani ruler. The stock argument for Afghanistan and Pakistan to protest the drones is that they violate their territorial integrity. The ground reality, however, is that on much of the territory where drones are deployed, the writ of the government hardly runs. There is no writ of the Pakistan Government in North and South Waziristan. The militants of different nationalities—Uzbeks, Afghans, Yemeni and Chechens, to name a few—are independent rulers there.
There are claims and denials after each such attack. Soon after a drone attack, the affected area is cordoned off by local militants to deny information on the number, names or nationality of those killed. The monthly average of deaths in the estimated 350-plus strikes between January 1, 2004 and December 31, 2012 is about 27, with 2670 people killed. There were only eight or so strikes between 2004 and 2006. The number of attacks between 2008 and 2012 comes close to 67, or more than five per month. The figures for the first five months of 2013 indicate a substantial decline.
Drone is an emotional issue. Its strikes have killed 176 children in Pakistan alone. To compare the destruction they cause with what the Pakistani militants or the Afghan Taliban do while targeting school girls—the latest instance being in Quetta on June 14—may sell in the West, up to a point and not without arguments to the contrary supported by statistics, but not in the Islamic world. Claims about the number of militants versus civilian casualties differ. According to the Pakistani authorities, 60 cross-border predator strikes in the period from January 2006 to April 2009 killed 14 wanted Al Qaeda leaders and 687 Pakistani civilians.
The American experts differ on the impact on the drone attacks. Barbara Elias-Sanborn has also claimed that, “as much of the literature on drones suggests, such killings usually harden militants’ determination to fight, stalling any potential negotiations and settlement.” However, an analysis by the RAND Corporation suggests that “drone strikes are associated with decreases in both the frequency and the lethality of militant attacks overall and in IED and suicide attacks specifically”. In a 2009 opinion article, Daniel L. Byman of the Brookings Institution wrote that drone strikes may have killed “10 or so civilians” for every “mid- and high-ranking [Al Qaeda and Taliban] leader”. In contrast, the New America Foundation has estimated that 80 per cent of those killed in the attacks were militants.
The Pakistani military has conceded that most of those killed were Al Qaeda and Taliban militants. The CIA believes that the strikes conducted since May 2010 have killed over 600 militants and have not caused any civilian fatalities, a claim that some experts disputed. In March 2013, Ben Emmerson, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, led a UN team that looked into civilian casualties from the US drone attacks, and stated that the attacks are a violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan. Emmerson said govern-ment officials from the country clearly stated Pakistan does not agree to the drone attacks, which is contradicted by US officials.
In conclusion, a dozen years of the US presence in the Af-Pak region and nine years of the use of drones to target militants hiding in remote areas with difficult terrain may have helped in elimination of some of the militants, but the overall impact on the ground, so far as the “war on terror” is concerned, remains limited. The Afghan Taliban as also the large array of militants of different nationalities continue to operate on both sides of the Af-Pak border. All sides may realise this as the NATO continues to wind down its presence.
Whether the US, that is slated to retain a reduced presence in Afghanistan post-2014, will continue to depend on drones to target militants remains to be seen. (Courtesy: South Asia Monitor)
The author, a close observer of the Afghan scenario, is a senior journalist who worked first in the UNI news agency and then in several publications including The Times of India. He was also posted in Dhaka as a correspondent of UNI soon after Bangladesh’s liberation in December 1971.