ACCORDING to a study published last month by the New America Foundation, 2010 saw more drone strikes with fewer civilian casualties than in previous years.
The report goes on to tout the precision and efficacy of these strikes and emphasises that “under the Obama administration, approximately 80 per cent of those reported killed by drone strikes have been militants; under the Bush administration, it was closer to 55 per cent.”
The artful reduction of civilian casualties to percentages is clever. Twenty per cent sounds digestible but refers to approximately 100 civilian deaths that the Foundation has conservatively estimated from media reports. The glib presentation accomplishes an important purpose: among Obama administration officials it popularises the notion that the supposed precision of drones makes them the weapon of choice for war in a region that seems increasingly intractable.
An array of charts and graphs hammers home the point that drones were undoubtedly made for the tricky task of ridding the world of terror and eliminating militant leaders. Hundreds have already been killed and hordes more will undoubtedly be felled through this magical solution to a vexing problem.
Among Obama administration officials frustrated at the slow death of militancy in Pakistan, this argument defeats alternative plans such as one for America to use ground troops for targeted strikes within Pakistani territory. A Washington Post report published on Jan 8, 2010 described just such a scenario, in which proponents of increased drone attacks won out against those pushing for ground troops. According to the article, the review ultimately “concluded that the United States can ill afford to threaten or further alienate a precarious, nuclear-armed country whose cooperation is essential to the administration on several fronts.”
The reign of drones is thus likely to continue. According to reports in the American media, in his meetings this week with Pakistan’s top military officials Vice President Joe Biden is expected to push for specific demands aimed at convincing the security establishment to speed up its crackdown on the Quetta Shura, believed to be spread out between Quetta and Karachi. Offerings of expensive military toys are also expected in exchange for a commitment to eliminate the Haqqani network, which Isaf forces hold responsible for thwarting their gains in Afghanistan. It is expected that the fulfilment of such demands can then be spun into a rhetorical victory for the Obama administration in time for the July 2011 initiation of the pullout of combat forces from the region.
Little is new in any of these tactics. The crux of the drone programme, pushed endlessly by think tanks such as the New America Foundation, is that killing Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders is the key to eliminating militancy from the region. The use of Predator drones to eliminate these identified targets therefore rests on what is assumed to be a concrete distinction between civilian and militant, leader and follower. It is assumed that any damage caused can be patched over with a smattering of aid projects — a school here, a sanitation project there — and all will be well. So what if your father or brother was killed in a strike? A neighbourhood school, it is imagined, will alleviate any residual acrimony and douse the fires of revenge.
Occurring in the immediate run-up to Mr Biden’s visit, the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer should prompt a reconsideration of the above assumptions. The valorisation of his killer and the subsequent public exposure of the depth of fundamentalism in Pakistani society presents a compelling argument against a military solution to extremism. The polarisation of Pakistani society, now so visible, points directly to the instability of the assumption that the general population and those fighting against security forces in the tribal areas can be neatly and easily separated into two categories that never overlap. This does not suggest that everyone in Pakistan is a militant, but that the antidote to militancy is an ideological defeat that can and must be produced as indigenously as the militancy itself. Such an organic solution can never be produced in the shadow of an American presence.
The prospect of doing nothing, however, seems more repugnant to the United States than actual defeat. How can militancy be left to fester and foment given a weak Pakistani state reeling against the anti-American rants of the hordes that have taken to the streets in this first week of 2011? And how will Pakistan progress with its almost non-existent capacity to collect revenue and its lack of political will to enact necessary reforms? All this and more has been reiterated by American officials time and again. In a much-discussed statement the new American Ambassador, Cameron Munter, reminded Pakistanis that his country intrudes because “we care” and that the many programmes promoting women’s rights, education and other development goals would not be possible without the assistance provided by the United States.
Ironically, it is this very inability to leave Pakistan alone that is likely to make the war against militancy a completely rout. The attractions of aid do little more than promoting an unsustainable war economy in Islamabad, where a sliver of Pakistani society is quickly becoming adept at churning out slick status reports on real and imagined aid projects. Drone attacks, suspended in a grey moral universe where facts are elusive and the law irrelevant, provide a steady stream of resentment that insures a seemingly indefatigable cadre of fighters. Ordinary people, largely excluded from the bounty of aid, rise to the defence of any hero whose actions can be loosely interpreted as rising up against the hegemony of American power. The victims of drone attacks may appear insignificant to newly minted American experts who can toss around the names of this or that militant outfit, but their deaths appear magnified to a Pakistani public that has little else but hatred to hold on to.
The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.