Drone attacks are wrong. I’m sure to be called an appeaser of terrorists for saying that, particularly in light of the latest events in Mumbai. But I think it’s important for Pakistanis, who are on the receiving end of the humiliation and much worse that drone attacks inflict, to hear an American say it. Hopefully some Americans will read this, too. First and foremost, whatever the official pablum or even the truth about “suspected militants” or “alleged al Qaeda leaders,” innocent civilians are being killed.
Sometimes it’s important to start from first principles, and I think one of those is that it’s wrong to terrorise women and children with unmanned aircraft piloted remotely from the other side of the planet. In the dark calculations of a flawed political world, even something that’s clearly wrong can be justified, if not truly justifiable, if it has good results. The philosophical school that makes such arguments is called utilitarianism, and its adherents – such as, I suppose, the Obama administration – could say drone attacks are necessary because they somehow protect Americans. That argument is marketable to the US public, precisely because it’s vague and plays on people’s fears and ignorance. And, from a Machiavellian point of view, it has the merit of being unfalsifiable: If terrorist attacks don’t happen in America, the US administration can say that’s because of drone attacks in Pakistan.
But meanwhile, actual, non-hypothetical life in Waziristan and beyond is being severely disrupted. When we hear about drone attacks at all in the American media – which we often don’t – it’s usually either asserted or simply assumed that they’re necessary and having the right results. The experts assured us that we were winning in Vietnam, too. I wish we would stop taking their word for it. One US military officer in Vietnam said something that became infamous as a symbol for that entire doomed war effort: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Is that what America is doing all over again in Waziristan?
I don’t know, because I haven’t been there. But when I traveled in Pakistan in 2009 for my book Overtaken By Events, I made a point of seeking out people who had lived there or in Dera Ismail Khan, a city that has become all too frequent a dateline.
My Pakistani-American friend Dr. Shahnaz Khan urged me to try to go there, but acknowledged that it might not be safe for goras to visit. “It’s a small, sleepy town,” she told me. “People were minding their own business, [didn’t] want to get in any trouble, to the point of being lazy, frankly. Since all this happened, a lot of people have migrated into Dera Ismail Khan. … [The] cantonment is right next to the river, and people used to go out and walk by the river. And now they have bunkers, and it’s very difficult for people from the city to go there. My mother lives there and now, we have friends, and it’s really hard for them even to visit her.” All the displaced people fleeing the drone attacks were disrupting life in Dera, Shahnaz told me. “They don’t have any permanent places to live, and they have a different language, different culture,” she said.
An urbane young businessman I met in Islamabad, Faiysal Ali Khan, echoed Shahnaz. Refugees from the drone attacks, he told me, “have had a huge, huge impact on our culture, our society, our people. All these things got disturbed. They brought in the guns, the narcotics, all the illicit trade. Not that I’m saying that they’re bad or anything. They’re refugees; what are they supposed to do?” I asked him about the loyalties of the general public in Waziristan. “On one side, the drone strikes are happening,” he said. “On the other side, Pakistan Army is also bombing you. Americans also bombing you. International community in Nato, ISAF; they’re also bombing you. Everyone is bombing. They’re bombing, bombing, killing innocent people, everything. Why should we have any feeling towards any of these?”
In Karachi, I met a 15-year-old Waziri refugee. “Most of these drone attacks kill innocent people,” he told me through a translator. “They ask our government to tell the people that all of the people who are killed are foreigners. But that is not the case. Most of them are innocent people. Every person has now become a victim of the US, from these drone attacks. What the US is doing by these drone attacks is creating more problems for themselves, rather than solving problems. Every person now that did not want to carry weapons, now wants to carry a weapon, because his children have died in these US attacks. They’re just making it worse for themselves.”
That was more than two years ago. Have things gotten better since then?
I don’t believe there’s any big conspiracy in the US to disregard voices such as these; it’s just that no one here wants to hear what they’re saying. A few of us are trying to get others to listen. I’m doing what I can, through my writing and public speaking, not only for the sake of suffering Waziris and other Pakistanis, but for the good of my own country. America is damaging not only its soul, but also its already badly compromised national economy. And – notwithstanding any circumstances or excuses – attacking people from afar, at no immediate risk to oneself, is cowardly.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.