THE White House’s description on Tuesday of drone strikes as being legal, ethical and wise is not the first time the American government has characterised them that way. That formulation has been used before, including in a speech last year by the chief counterterrorism adviser, and senior legal officers from the government, the military and the CIA have argued publicly that drone strikes are legal. And yet the memo leaked this week that lays out the legal basis for them has attracted much more attention in the United States, perhaps because it focuses on strikes against American citizens. But the same human rights issues the American media has now raised also apply to Pakistanis, Somalis, Yemenis and citizens of other countries killed without trial in drone attacks. This memo and earlier comments find it legal to kill members of Al Qaeda or its “associated forces” who pose a significant and imminent threat to the US. But as the American media has pointed out, it is unclear whether every person killed is about to attack the US. And this is all the more true in the Pakistani context, where ‘signature strikes’ target people, sometimes in groups, simply moving or acting in ways considered suspicious.
The American reaction to the memo also goes to the heart of something Pakistanis have been asking for — increased transparency. Recent media reports that rules being formulated for carrying out drone strikes will not be applicable to strikes in Pakistan have only increased the general suspicion here about the drone programme. The more the way the programme is actually carried out differs from the narrowly defined version described by American officials, the more room there will be to doubt its legality and ethicality. And the longer the US appears to carry out unilateral attacks without the real — and publicly acknowledged — involvement of the Pakistani government, the more mistrust and resentment these attacks will breed.
The Pakistani state has its own failures to account for. Going after some militant groups but sheltering or turning a blind eye to others has provided an excuse for another country to tackle a problem they say we can’t handle. Failing to evolve a mature partnership with the US means we haven’t been able to negotiate a joint drone programme. And North Waziristan, for any of a number of reasons, remains untouched. But nor is it enough for America to simply say, as it now repeatedly does, that drone attacks are carried out after careful scrutiny of targets. More information is needed to convince both Americans and Pakistanis that their civil liberties are not being eroded in the name of their security.