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Pak-US drone dispute

Updated January 27, 2018


THE politics of drone strikes is back with a vengeance.

For years, Pakistan and the US played a dangerous game of publicly denying what was obvious to all: drone strikes carried out by the US in Pakistan targeting militants.

What was less clear was the extent of cooperation between Pakistan and the US. A surge in drone strikes in the last months of the George W. Bush administration was taken to new heights in the first few years of the Barack Obama administration, which eventually led to a fierce pushback by the Pakistani state.

Now, with President Donald Trump seemingly determined to unshackle the US military and step up operations in Afghanistan, a new chapter in drone wars and their repercussions for Pakistan-US ties appears to have opened.

The only thing once can say about the drone strike on Wednesday is that it took place. The site and the target of the drone strike, though, are being disputed by the US and Pakistan in an unusual, unnecessary and potentially destabilising spat.

The Pakistani state has argued that the drone strike targeted an Afghan refugee camp in Fata and that, perhaps unknown to Pakistani authorities, a militant, who was on a US list of targets, had found sanctuary among the Afghan refugees. The US appears to believe that the site targeted was a Haqqani network camp.

Reconciling those two seemingly divergent positions, the following possibility exists: the US is deliberately and recklessly increasing the pressure on Pakistan by unilaterally targeting the Haqqani network on Pakistani soil, while the state here is playing politics with the issue of Afghan refugees by trying to link the latter to terrorism.

Both the US and Pakistan ought to reassess their approaches, if it is true that they are using drone strikes to engage in brinkmanship. The Pakistani official claim about Afghan refugee camps in Fata is particularly puzzling since it is widely known the camps that did exist in the region were closed a number of years ago.

But there has been a concerted attempt made by the Pakistani state to use the millions of Afghan refugees, both official and undocumented, as a way of putting pressure on the Afghan government and the US.

While there are some undeniably legitimate concerns regarding refugees, to use human beings as bargaining chips and pressure tactics in state conflicts is unconscionable and an act that no modern, rule-of-law or progressive state should indulge in.

Pakistan should refrain from vilifying Afghan refugees, who have suffered enormously and also made genuine contributions to Pakistan over the decades they have been here.

As for the US, the idea that drone strikes can be used to coerce or embarrass Pakistan is a dangerous gamble.

Better to seek cooperative solutions than push Pakistan into a corner from which no side can realistically benefit.

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2018