DRONES have divided Pakistan for nearly a decade now. In the days when drone attacks first began many were beguiled by the promises they represented: the militant tumours that were eating up a corner of the country would be eliminated via these aerial weapons.
Words like ‘precision’, ‘necessity’, ‘cure’ and ‘excision’ dominated the semantics of the drone project. The drones were operated from several oceans away, everyone knew, but some trust could be put in the American superpower’s ability to know of threats and to eliminate them from the hapless and diseased soil of its ally.
Simple recipes are always appealing and this one was truly elemental: elimination by remote control of the scourge that was damning Pakistan, bombing schools, blowing up mosques, targeting policemen, assassinating professors.
Drones are a perfect symbol of a superpower that can kill but remain invincible itself.
Recipes, however, do not always produce the delectable dish promised by their ingredients. Such has been the case of the effort of eliminating extremism via drone attacks. Last week, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which for several years now has undertaken the task of monitoring the numbers and casualties from drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, issued a press release with some grim if not unsurprising news. According to the bureau, “as the number of drone strikes in Pakistan gets close to 400, fewer than 4pc of the people killed have been identified by available records as members of Al Qaeda”.
The bureau’s project, Naming the Dead, collects available data on the people killed by drone attacks (to the extent it is made available). As per these statistics, they say that of 2,379 people killed, only 704 have been named, and only 295 of the total named have been reported to be members of some armed group. Only 84 (4pc) have actually been identified as members of Al Qaeda. Furthermore, nearly 30pc of those killed by drone attacks were not linked to any militant group at all.
The bureau’s findings are important since they fly in the face of claims made by US Secretary of State John Kerry just last year, in which he asserted that only “confirmed terror targets at the highest level were fired at”.
They also fly in the face of the basis for which the US drone operation in Pakistan (and elsewhere) has been justified in the first place: Al Qaeda has committed aggressive acts against the US, which in turn is legally justified in pursuing the latter everywhere and anywhere in the world where it may be housed or hidden. If only 4pc of those killed are actually members of the verified enemy, then it follows that the other 96pc of casualties are not the targets that were legally justified, in whose name intrusions into the territories of sovereign others have been taking place.
None of this, of course, much bothers the US. After the 4pc statistic was released by the bureau, the US government responded with the same sort of rote reply that has been pinned to drones, their legality and their efficacy, for the past several years, when such damning evidence was not available: “The death of innocent civilians is something that the US government seeks to avoid if at all possible. In those rare instances in which it appears non-combatants may have been killed or injured, after-action reviews have been conducted to determine why, and to ensure that we are taking the most effective steps to minimise such risk to non-combatants in the future.”
None of the details of these reviews, such that they would identify the people killed, were of course made publicly available.
The low success rate of actually eliminating militants, of Al Qaeda or any other ilk, is unlikely to come as much of a surprise to most Pakistanis, 66pc of whom, it is reported by a survey conducted this summer, oppose drone strikes in their country. While drone strikes have boasted of the elimination of this or that Al Qaeda or Taliban leader, bomb blasts, targeted assassinations, jailbreaks and school bombings have all continued in Pakistan.
Militancy has expanded its realm of activity and its capacity. An attack such as the one conducted on Karachi airport a few months ago would not have been possible if the easy recipe of militant elimination via remote control had borne fruit.
On the legal front, Pakistan has continued to lodge its objections. On Oct 17, ambassador Zamir Akram, the Pakistani delegate to the United Nations First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, reminded the international community yet again of the need to bring drone usage under the umbrella of international norms: “Technology must follow law and not the other way around,” but “the ambition for world domination and hegemony has undermined accommodation and engagement.”
A more apt summary of the drone debacle is not possible. Before the data of their inefficacy, whether it is based on the low number of actual militant targets or the increased ability of militant groups to orchestrate attacks, it is obvious that it is domination that motivates the drones’ continued usage.
Drones, therefore, were used, are being used and will continue to be used not because they eliminate militancy, or because they can surgically excise tumours that have been eating away at the tissue of an ailing country, but because they present a low-cost and highly visible embodiment of world domination. In the drone, its remote ability to bomb, its impenetrability, its ability to be all-seeing, all-reporting and ever-present, is a perfect symbol of the constant presence of a superpower that can kill but not be killed.
The objective of actually eliminating the militant enemy is but an accidental, unimportant and incidental detail, one that concerns only those actually threatened by bombs and blasts.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2014