Nearly two years and two days after US Special Forces sneaked across the border into Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden, President Obama had a message for Pakistanis. In a speech at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013, President Obama acknowledged in his most public statement ever, that the incursion into Pakistan had imposed a cost on the United States. ‘Such interventions cannot be the norm” the president said as part of laying out his new counter-terrorism strategy. He insisted that the only reason the bin Laden raid had been so successful in Pakistan was not simply luck and the meticulous planning of the Special Operation Forces, but also the fact that the United States had a ground presence next door in Afghanistan. In underscoring these dynamics, President Obama emphasized that what had worked once could not thus become a part of the American counter-terrorism strategy.
The messages for Pakistanis, who were mentioned again and again, as the foremost victims of terror, as righteously concerned about incursions on their territory, as understandably fed up of the cost the War on Terror has wrought on them was clear, there would be no more large military led operations. The Obama Administration would like to defeat terror with a variety of tactics, with the use of ideological tools to counter the effects of extremism, investment in development and less frequent and more targeted use of unmanned drones. The questions are tough, Obama acknowledged and the answers hence diverse and multifaceted, and not at all simple.
As far as Pakistanis are concerned, the admissions of complexities and costs are indeed welcome, but they arrive a little, actually two years too late. In the two years since the 2011 Osama bin Laden raid occurred in Abbottabad, Pakistanis who may have been then moderately anti-American, have since become virulently so. Those once ambivalent about drone attacks and their efficiency have made up their mind paying in disrupted lives the cost of a conflict whose parameters and targets are all decided elsewhere and without their input. The war has spread from the far flung areas that were easy to forget into Pakistani cities – into Karachi and Quetta, into the lives of doctors, shopkeepers and construction workers alike. The death tolls from attacks and retaliations and counter attacks have gone from hundreds to thousands.
So acknowledgement or not the choice before Pakistan was never a good one. The United States delegitimised the Pakistani state by continuing its onslaught of drone strikes year after year. Unheeded by both Parliamentary resolutions that denied any tacit agreement on drones and the statements of UN Rapporteurs calling them illegal; the Predators continued to fly, releasing Hellfire missiles over Pakistani territory and treating Pakistani borders as arbitrary impediments to American strategy.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan also continued its attack on the Pakistani state, targeting, security check posts and judicial institutions, health workers and police stations. Anything and everything associated with the Pakistani state was fair game; and the presence of civilians was no deterrent. The Tehreek-e-Taliban made the same point as the Americans, that the Pakistani state was not able to protect its own people, that their invasive capacity to kill was greater than the government’s capacity to protect and that the writ of the state simply did not apply.
On May 11, 2013 Pakistanis went to the ballot box amid bombings and threats and lack of infrastructure and rigging and a plethora of problems that would deter most baby democracies; and they voted. When the votes were counted, after the recounts and some re-elections; the mandate was clear. Pakistan had elected two parties, both of which had promised and continue to promise making peace with the Taliban. If the battle was between two different forces both of which, were effectively engaged in undermining the Pakistani state; it seemed that the Pakistani voter had chosen the Taliban as the lesser of two evils; as the possible partner in compromise.
The parameters for the upcoming peace deals, the concessions and capitulations on which they will be wrought are yet unknown. It is not known for example if women will completely be banned from obtaining an education in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or just limited to a fifth-grade education. It is not known if the existing laws on Pakistan’s books which allow minorities to be persecuted with the ease of the most baseless of accusations will be added to by new laws which accomplish even greater injustices courtesy of a Taliban tailored peace. None of this is known, but it is known that as far as the Pakistani people’s mandate is concerned, the cost of American drones, raids and meddling has meant that in the worst choice to ever befall them, they have turned down the United States and taken up talks with the Taliban.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.
She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria
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