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Drone programme

April 21, 2012

DRONES are back in the news, though not the strikes for now but the debate over the ‘ownership’ of the programme. According to a report in this newspaper yesterday, Pakistan and the US have begun exploring various options for shared control of the drone programme after the US refused to end the strikes. Given the opacity of the drone programme and the refusal of both sides to reveal operational details, it is difficult to say whether the negotiations will succeed or what concessions either side is ultimately willing to make. However, this much is clear: establishing some kind of joint control over the strikes is in the interests of both countries. From the US perspective, an effective weapon to fight militancy is constantly mired in controversy because the strikes are presently seen as an infringement of Pakistani sovereignty. By now it seems fairly clear that the regularity of strikes is deeply impacted by the opposition to strikes here. So it stands to reason that minimising the controversy is in the interests of the US.

Of course, states don’t just give away, or even share, complex new technologies because of public perceptions in countries that are troublesome allies at best. Pakistani officialdom has boxed itself in on drone strikes: having whipped up anti-American fervour and publicly denounced the strikes, it has become doubly difficult to now acknowledge the efficacy of the strikes. But poor decisions in the past should not hold decision-making hostage in the present. If Pakistan is to be able to strike a deal with the US on sharing the use of the drone technology inside Pakistani territory, it will have to work hard to reverse the perceptions of the Pakistani public and US policymakers. With the Pakistani public, a dose of truth-telling — not something officials here excel at — will be needed. For one, while drone strikes do cause civilian casualties the alternatives are even more damaging: troops on the ground, artillery or aerial bombardment. For another, it is essential to take out some militants in the tribal areas or else they will likely plan fresh attacks inside and outside Pakistan. These truths must be told loudly and with conviction if public opposition is to be countered.

As for perceptions of US policymakers, the unhappy reality is that after Osama bin Laden was found to be living in this country for many years, Pakistan’s commitment to fighting militancy, even of the kind that threatens global damage, is under severe scrutiny. Joint ownership of the drone programme in Pakistan will only come if Pakistan demonstrates anew that it can and does want to fight militancy.