Behind the drones debate

Published September 29, 2012

DRONES kill civilians. Fewer civilians would probably die if there were less secrecy surrounding drone strikes in Fata. And the US kills people in Fata that it probably wouldn’t get away with killing in less remote parts of the world.

There. Now that that’s out of the way, there’s another obvious truth about drone strikes: they won’t end.

Because drones kill militants. Because there isn’t a good alternative to drones for killing militants in parts of Fata. And because the US security establishment likes them and the Pakistani security establishment doesn’t loathe them.

And, given what 140,000 troops in Fata can and have done, drones are — in terms of casualties and damage caused to civilian populations — on the periphery of the ‘what are we doing to our people’ debate.

If drones are here to stay, why this endless back and forth, sometimes acerbic, at other times restrained, between Pakistan and the US?

The unofficial official version here is two-pronged. One, public opinion in Pakistan proper is against drones and that makes it problematic for the state to endorse them. Two, the Americans refuse to share drone technology or keep Pakistan sufficiently in the loop on strikes any longer.

But everything we know about drone strikes and what goes on behind the scenes comes from official sources.

If drones are unpopular with the Pakistani public because they are seen as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty by the arrogant and imperialist Americans, why don’t Pakistani and American officials collude to claim the strikes are jointly conducted and a necessary part of Pakistan’s fight against militancy?

After all, if the Pakistani state could lie to its public that it opposed the strikes when there was in fact cooperation with the US in the early years of the programme, why can’t it now lie about there being cooperation on drone strikes when there may in fact not be any cooperation?

Given a choice between humiliating Pakistan by contradicting an official account here and endorsing that official account to ensure uninterrupted drone strikes, the CIA would probably live with the latter. A deal, then, surely could be struck.

So the force of public opinion must be a fig leaf.

Has Pakistan, then, calculated that drones are invaluable technology and a toy that we absolutely must have for our security needs?

Useful as they are, there’s nothing to suggest that the defence of Pakistan’s borders or its internal security will turn on how quickly and how many drones we acquire. So that’s the other fig leaf gone.

So why do we argue over drones with the Americans so much?

The answer, predictably, is only whispered, and has little to do with drones directly.

The drones tussle is part of a bigger, much more threatening problem as far the army here is concerned.

Starting a couple of years ago, Pakistan was flooded with foreign intelligence and undercover operatives. The Americans claimed it was to track down Al Qaeda, to find Osama, and to learn more about and take out groups intent on an international jihad far beyond the Af-Pak theatre.

In Fata, as cooperation with Pakistan on drone strikes dwindled, the Americans developed their own network of informants.

While much has been made about drone strikes increasing in frequency because of so-called ‘signature’ or ‘pattern of life’ strikes based on visual evidence from up above, few doubt that it has also been possible because of the substantially ramped up network of informants the Americans now have in Fata.

So everywhere the army and its intelligence counterparts looked, foreign operatives kept popping up on Pakistani soil. The alarm bells started ringing.

To the extent that a covert foreign presence on domestic soil is resented by any country, the army’s agitation made sense. While everyone plays the game of planting agents on foreign soil, it is also a question of degree: the army believed that a red line had been crossed by the Americans.

But the troublesome presence is not just about numbers; it is also about perceptions. And both in the short and the long term, the army believes the American presence inside Pakistan is about malign intentions.

In the tenacity of the TTP, the security establishment sees a foreign hand. Where does the TTP get the vast funds that they seem to command, hardliners here wonder. Why are some targets selected, like the Kamra and Mehran airbases, they ask.

The answers are easily proffered: the Americans want to hurt the army, to punish them for defiance on Afghanistan, to keep them tied down and on the defensive. A weak army means a weak Pakistan and a weak Pakistan suits American interests, according to this theory.

Then there’s the nukes. A vast network of American operatives on Pakistani soil ostensibly going after Al Qaeda and other militants can easily be turned against Pakistan’s nuclear assets — and there’s no shortage of evidence that the security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets, if not their existence, continues to occupy the minds of American policymakers.

Beyond that, there are the strategic worries. What kind of future for this region are the Americans trying to craft? Whatever it is, according to hardliners, it is clearly anti-Pakistan.

So the army wants the American network uprooted and its operatives out, out, out of Pakistan. That’s why we push so hard on drones. We don’t really want drones for ourselves and we don’t want to convince ordinary Pakistanis of their efficacy.

What the army does want is to clamp down on American networks developed here, of which drones are but one, public part.

And it wants to clamp down on the networks because it fundamentally mistrusts American intentions in Pakistan.

So drones aren’t the challenge; they aren’t even a symptom. But neither will the argument over drones taper off anytime soon.

Because the argument is really over clandestine networks and intentions, and that debate isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm



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