Beyond the drones

Published May 30, 2013

THE renewed debate on drone attacks in Fata and the response from the Pakistan authorities deserve due attention.

The latest flurry of drone-related statements began with a report that drones were going to continue discharging their lethal cargo on Pakistani targets for 20 years.

This report, though denied soon afterward, created a perfect setting for President Barack Obama’s address at Washington’s National Defence University, and his announcement that the use of drones would be reduced and that CIA was to be divested of its monopoly over the drone programme apparently led to more relief than it deserved.

Meanwhile, powerful voices continued to be raised against what was described as killing by remote control. The American Lawyers for Civil Liberties renewed their call for the cessation of drone attacks. Amnesty International again condemned such attacks for causing extra-legal killings and for violating international law. And now the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has taken exception to the drone attacks.

That the US had begun to rethink the drone programme could not but please the Pakistani authorities. The Foreign Office declared it had always opposed the drone attacks. The incoming prime minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, apparently tried to close ranks with the country’s most powerful and permanent establishment by reminding the US of Pakistan’s sovereign rights and the need to stop drone flights, as a follow-up to his plea for talks with the Taliban — a gesture Secretary of State John Kerry has not been late in appreciating.

In addition to the views of eminent persons quoted above, notice may also be taken of two detailed studies on the subject.

The report that Medea Benjamin heckled President Obama during his speech in Washington reminded one of her book published last year, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, in which she has narrated her experience after visits to the theatre of drone attacks and after meeting with some innocent victims.

She quotes two sources to establish the killing of non-combatants. According to the New America Foundation, between 1,717 and 2,680 people were killed during 2004-2011 and of them 293 to 471 were “civilians”. The UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism puts the number of civilian deaths during the same period at 391 to 780, including 175 children (out of 2,372 to 2,997 casualties).

But killing of non-combatants is only one of the author’s concerns. She also argues that some of those labelled as terrorists might not have deserved that description. She challenges the very legality of drone attacks, expresses alarm at the growth of the drone-manufacturing industry and highlights the US fears that many countries could soon be using predator planes.

That should put an end to the Pakistani government/military’s hopes of receiving drones or the relevant technology from the US. Medea Benjamin raises the level of the debate on drones to the more fundamental issues of the rules of war and the drone threat to international peace. Pakistan must surely participate in that debate.

Then the highly rated International Crisis Group released its report Drones: Myths and Reality in Pakistan in which it has argued that the drones kill fewer militants than the young men they turn into militants. It blames the US for not officially acknowledging the drone programme (one wonders how the ICG could say this) and Pakistan for doublespeak.

The ICG plea that “Pakistan must ensure that its actions and those of the US comply with the practices of distinction and proportionality under international humanitarian law” bypasses the issue of legality of the drone strikes and settles for a pragmatic compromise: “The US should develop a legal framework that defines clear roles for the executive, legislative and judicial branches, converting the drone programme from a covert CIA operation to a military-run programme with a meaningful level of judicial and congressional oversight.”

Here ICG seems to be pinning its hopes on reports of President Obama’s initiative to transfer control of the drone warfare from CIA to Pentagon. It is not clear that Pakistan will benefit from this switch and even if it did there are reasons to doubt the ability of the US military or even its justice authorities to objectively analyse matters concerning Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The most important message from the ICG is about the need to push political, legal and socio-economic reforms in Fata.

What Pakistan is confronted with is a many-sided dilemma. Its case against the drone attacks suffers from a lack of proper investigation into their impact on Pakistan’s population. This obstacle must be removed by facilitating a thorough probe into the drone programme by an independent commission comprising civil society and government representatives.

The second issue is that drone attacks will not be ended until the US is offered a quid pro quo. Despite the goodwill the TTP have displayed for it, Pakistan’s new ruling party may find it impossible to prevent militants’ activities in Afghanistan. That will also undermine Mian Nawaz Sharif’s negotiations with the Taliban. He may find that those who hope for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, except for a deal on their inflexible terms, constitute a tiny minority.

Reliance on talks with the Taliban for a breakthrough means their recognition as bona fide representatives of the tribal population, which may not be factually correct. Instead of talking to the Taliban it would be better to hold wider consultation with the tribal population.

It is necessary to ascertain whether party-based elections in Fata and the decision of the newly elected MNAs to join a Pakistani mainstream party have prepared the tribal population for accepting the reform agenda such as the one proposed by the ICG. Without a long-term plan to stabilise the tribal areas, efforts to have peace with the militants or to stop drone attacks will touch only the fringe of the problem, not its heart.



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