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The drone test

July 22, 2013

THE calls for the US to revise its drone policy in Pakistan (and elsewhere) are becoming deafening. In May, US President Barack Obama’s speech on the use of drones — promising to improve oversight, targeting and the protection of civilians — was dismissed as too little, too late.

Pakistan has since raised the issue at the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, a Pew survey released last week found global opposition to drone strikes — at least half the population in 31 out of 39 countries surveyed opposes the campaign.

Calls for a new drone policy are also starting to emanate from Washington: writing in Foreign Affairs last week, Council on Foreign Relations fellow Daniel Markey recommended that the US seek Islamabad’s pre-authorisation for strikes against specific targets.

Much, then, has been written about what the US is doing wrong, and what it should do instead. But less is said about what Pakistan needs to do in order to deal with the drone dilemma.

The current government is well-positioned to take on this issue because it does not carry the baggage of almost a decade of ‘drone duplicity’. As a good first step Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said he will not privately sanction strikes while publicly condemning them. Sensibly, the government has also called for a political solution to the problem.

In a domestic context, it’s important that Sharif handles this ‘drone diplomacy’ well. This will be a major security and foreign policy issue on which the civilian government, rather than the military, takes the lead; after all, it was parliament’s call in 2012 for the cessation of strikes that signalled the end of the ‘tacit consent’ era.

The civilian government’s credibility is also more at risk in the face of an anti-drone electorate than the military’s. And, importantly, Sharif’s mature handling of this issue could help correct the dynamic whereby the US and other international actors engage more closely with the military than the civilian government. As such, drones are going to be a big test for the new government and its ability to articulate, strategise and implement a policy position.

Going beyond routine condemnations, Sharif must now articulate a clear demand regarding drone strikes to take advantage of the coalescing pressure. Will it be the complete cessation of strikes? A negotiated agreement of the sort Markey recommends? Pakistani ownership of drone technology? Or some combination of these? And what happens if Pakistan’s demands are not met?

If Pakistan’s stance is that drone strikes must cease completely, Sharif has to prepare to answer the question: in the absence of drones, how will Pakistan monitor and control militants that plan and launch terrorist attacks from Pakistani soil? Because, as another American analyst, Lisa Curtis, puts it, “the continuation of drone strikes signals US frustration with Pakistan’s unwillingness to crack down consistently and comprehensively on groups that find sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas”.

If Sharif’s answer is that the cessation of drone strikes is needed so that he can initiate talks with the Pakistani Taliban to negotiate peace, then the government needs to be ready with a follow-up strategy regarding how, when and what to talk to the Taliban about.

On the other hand, if the government’s stance rests on the ‘violated sovereignty’ argument, then Pakistan will have to answer for all the other ‘non-state’ actors that violate the country’s sovereignty without facing a public outcry.

If the government instead opts for a negotiated agreement, it will have to be fully transparent about the terms and build national consensus around these. An essential part of this transparency will be making information about Pakistan’s role in the drone campaign until now — and the logic behind complicity — publicly available. But is the government ready to defend its policies to an angry nation?

Alternatively, if the government presses for ownership of drone technology (as some officials have indicated that it will), how will it address the furor around innocent civilian deaths? Why is it any better if the trigger is pulled at home if the outcome is the same?

Going further, is the government ready to answer difficult questions about the implications of Pakistani ownership of drone technology? Who would the local targets be? Who would authorise drone strikes? Would targets be limited to the tribal areas or could drones be used nationwide? Would Pakistanis only use the drones for surveillance? And if so, how would they use the information they collect?

These are the tough issues it has taken Washington many years to wade through, contending with ‘kill lists’ and controversial signature strikes along the way. Could Pakistan tackle these questions any more quickly and satisfactorily?

And finally, how serious is the government about retaliating if its drone-related demands are not met? Will it refer the issue to the International Court of Justice? Or threaten to block the passage of Nato convoys as the US withdraws from Afghanistan, and thereby risk losing the benefits of an alliance, however strained, with Washington (think of the recent IMF package and the announcement last week that the countries are resuming talks on a bilateral investment treaty)?

Unfortunately for Sharif and his government, the answers to many of these perplexing questions lie in a comprehensive, long-term and transparent counterterrorism strategy — the kind that clearly identifies proscribed organisations and activities and outlines and enables effective ways to curtail them.

Pakistan’s tragedy is that it has not been able to forge such a strategy despite a decade of bloodshed, and it is unlikely to do so in the short term. Sadly, discussions with the US about a new drone policy will serve little purpose if they are not framed in the context of an overall plan to stem militancy in Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance journalist.