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Farcical debate

April 22, 2013

WITH a congressional hearing in the United States on the drone issue set for April 23, some groups in that country are making efforts to create a consensus for bringing an end to drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere.

At a protest rally and in discussions in Illinois, in which I participated, the majority demanded that their senator and chair of the first-ever Senate committee on drone strikes, Dick Durbin, make efforts to bring the culture of robot wars to a halt.

However, in this article, my argument focuses on the behaviour of state apparatuses in Pakistan and the US, which manipulate the human rights discourse in a way that helps to extend their anti-civilian agenda. The corporate media, many human rights groups and civilian networks tend to believe the state narrative — one reason why their efforts to promote the human rights discourse on the drone issue have not always been successful. The consequent suffering in Pakistan and the military determinism in the US is the outcome of the state’s take on global security.

In Pakistan, the state apparatus largely controls the drone debate, which encourages civilians, tribesmen and the media to condemn drone strikes as long as the US remains the focus of their ire. However, the security set-up here is rarely held responsible, even though it has been pointed out that drone strikes have been carried out with logistical support from the Pakistani state apparatus. This blinkered view has brought no relief to oppressed tribesmen.

Fata has been in the throes of a bloodbath for the last eight years. But civil society is reluctant to find a new perspective that can truly be called a human rights one. In 2004, Taliban commander Nek Muhammad was killed in the first-ever drone attack. No one protested when the military claimed it had killed him. Similarly the military first claimed it had attacked a madressah in Bajaur Agency (a large number of students died) although later it emerged that it was a US drone strike.

Civil society groups from the rest of the country were uninterested in the local protests. Ever since then drone strikes have become a regular feature of tribal people’s lives. Nobody knows what is happening in the country’s strategic backyard, thanks to the information black hole. In 2006, journalist Hayatullah was killed for reporting on a drone strike, it is believed. This sent a threatening signal to all his tribal colleagues who were deterred from reporting such attacks. Resultantly, silence prevailed, which was effectively maintained by the killing of tribal journalists from time to time.

The fear factor was witnessed not in journalists alone, but also in survivors of drone attacks and families of the dead and injured who did not want to be quoted in news stories. We should not forget that much of the information about civilian casualties in drone strikes is the outcome of embedded reports and ‘subsidised’ journalism.

Had it not been for the tragic Salala incident in 2011, the death of tribal people in drone attacks would still have gone unopposed. The overnight killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Pak-Afghan border by Nato gunships and helicopters changed the official outlook on human rights violations in Fata. Survivors of drone strikes suddenly sprang up. Protest rallies in Peshawar and Islamabad were encouraged. To awaken the global conscience, pictures of children maimed or killed in drone strikes were collected from Fata to give a human form to the anti-drone campaign.

In reality, however, the aftermath of the Salala deadlock stripped the human rights’ debate of its moral vitality because the human tragedy had been politicised. Apparently, the incident was used to make it clear to the US that Pakistan’s support for drone strikes was subject to funding and the safety of its armed personnel. Disregard of either would make it difficult for the US to justify its relevance in Afghanistan. In plain words, the understanding seemed to be that spilling tribesmen’s blood in drone strikes was okay as long as the US continued funding the military and did not harm its men. This is how the human rights discourse on civilian deaths in drone strikes can be manipulated and converted into a bargaining chip.

For the US, the nuisance value of the military has always remained central to its relations with Pakistan. Therefore, any risk on this count could mean the end of the drone project. It would be a tough challenge because US forces in Afghanistan have so far failed to explore alternatives to drones. Pilotless drone attacks are the only effective weapon against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and the best way of ensuring the US forces kill the enemy without getting killed themselves. Therefore, the drone project provides the allied forces a justification to convince taxpayers back home of their utility in Afghanistan.

Back in the US, anti-drone activists are expected to raise two points. First, the US has to set an example before discouraging other countries interested in joining the drone project. Second, the drone policy was a central election plank for the Obama administration’s Af-Pak policy. Now in his second term, Obama can hardly afford to carry a bloodstained drone legacy into the future.

What do we do to get access to the tribal belt to understand the implications of years of constant surveillance and continuous attacks on victims of the most highly sophisticated robot war in the world? Here lies the real challenge for worldwide human rights organisations and civilian networks.

They need to ensure an inquiry into the matter, which must be independent of state control. I have observed that the people in the US (including some from the Pakistani diaspora) are interested in demystifying the drone ‘policy’. But it is also important for them to unequivocally point out the plight of Fata’s millions who languish on the Pak-Afghan strategic fault line.

The writer has written extensively on various aspects of militancy and conflict.