THE frequency has dropped precipitously, but drone strikes still stir the pot and every fresh strike raises a host of old questions. As ever, there are multiple versions of the drone strike on Saturday in North Waziristan. According to security officials, the target was a compound belonging to Hafiz Gul Bahadur that was presently housing militants from Tajikistan. Little of that version is surprising: Hafiz Gul Bahadur is the quintessential ‘good Taliban’ who cuts deals with the state, but also has a ‘bad Taliban’ side that gives sanctuary to foreign militants. But then there’s the other version, that of the government in Islamabad. For one, the Foreign Office issued a boilerplate statement of concern — relations with the US could be negatively affected if unilateral strikes continue, the statement seemed to suggest. For another, murmurs of concern were raised about the possible impact on the as-yet-denied back-channel talks with the Taliban.
Increasingly though the state’s response to drone strikes cannot be seen in isolation. Where there was initially hope that the government would provide political leadership and assert itself in the foreign policy and national security domains, now there just seems to be ambivalence. Not even the prime minister’s decision to keep the foreign ministry portfolio for himself and close advisers — in the face of strong criticism from the foreign policy elite — has yielded any significant diplomatic initiative on any front. It was and is Nawaz Sharif’s choice to have focused on the energy crisis after taking office, but then perhaps it was best to give the foreign ministry a full-time minister and a clear set of directions.
On drones, there is little significantly new that can be done. To the extent that Pakistan has applied pressure to get America to strike less frequently, that has already been achieved. The best option was and remains for the state to regain control of the areas where drones strike, overwhelmingly in the Waziristan agencies. Beyond that, the problem is of politics: tacit acceptance of the utility of strikes and overt opposition to them is a political cul-de-sac in which the last government was trapped. If something is unacceptable and a red line is crossed and yet no response comes, governments tend to lose credibility. On drones, the PML-N already appears to be falling off the tightrope.