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The drone debate

October 12, 2012


AS young Malala Yousufzai struggles for her life, spare a thought for Imran Khan whose recent high profile motorcade to Tank has been completely overshadowed by the cowardly attack on the 14-year old girl.

But apart from losing all the publicity the PTI leader was hoping to get, he has also lost the argument he was trying to build against the American drone campaign. Correct me if I’m wrong — and I’m sure many of Imran Khan’s supporters will — but his argument runs something like this:

Once American drone strikes cease, and the Pakistan Army halts all operations in the tribal areas, then militancy will automatically die down. How? By the tribes throwing out the hardline militants who, according to Khan, make up a tiny proportion of the Pakistani Taliban and their ilk.

But all evidence points to the decimation of tribal leaders with the courage to stand up to the terrorists who have infested and taken over their villages. Every time they have tried to raise a lashkar to fight the militants, they have been gunned down, blown up, or beheaded. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a website on terrorism in South Asia, 109 tribal elders have been killed by terrorists in the last seven years.

The other thing Imran Khan is apparently keen on is that we negotiate with the thugs who attacked Malala Yousufzai. He forgets that there have been many talks and truces with these killers, and every agreement has been broken by them. When the provincial government handed over Swat to Mullah Fazlullah and his gang in 2008, they not only terrorised the population, but soon tried to take over Malakand.

However, what got the army moving was the video clip of a young woman being flogged publicly by the Taliban in 2009. Public anger pushed the administration into action, and Fazlullah’s militia was finally driven out of the valley.

But it seems they can still attack there with impunity. Perhaps their attempt on Malala’s life will be a similar tipping point, and public revulsion will put pressure on the government to step up the campaign to rid us of extremist militancy.

While Imran Khan dubbed his recent motorcade a peace march, he seemed to be calling for surrender: ‘peace’ implies a cessation of hostilities by both parties.

Here, Khan is calling on the Americans to stop targeting terrorists with their drones, and on the Pakistan Army to halt all operations in the area. But to the best of my knowledge, he has not called on the militants to also cease their attacks on state and civilian targets within Pakistan.

Despite his courtship of the religious right, he has been rebuffed by the Pakistani Taliban who denounced him as a ‘Westernised liberal’.

There is delicious irony here as Khan never tires of applying the same label to his critics. But the Taliban made it very clear that he is not welcome on their turf, and this is the reason he and his convoy turned back at Tank without entering South Waziristan.

So if the Taliban decide who can enter where they operate, clearly the state has no control over the area. The question then arises if we can claim sovereignty here. This is important because the main thrust of the protest over American drones is based on the charge that they violate our sovereignty. Can we make this claim without control over the territory?

The other issue, of course, is one of collateral damage: several studies and reports purporting to count the cost of drone attacks have come up with conflicting numbers.

A recent one, commissioned by the human rights organisation Reprieve, and carried out by Stanford and New York universities, has come out with anecdotal accounts based on conversations with a small sample of selected locals.

The unambiguous conclusion of the report is that drones not only inflict unacceptable civilian casualties and psychological damage, they do little to solve the problem.

However, other studies and reports are not as critical. A New American Foundation analysis cited by Peter Bergen in a CNN report suggests that under Obama, civilian fatalities were 11 per cent of the total killed in the drone campaign, and stand at two per cent in 2012. Conversely, the number of militants killed is 89 per cent of the fatalities.

While even a single death is tragic, few in the anti-drone camp talk about the tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers slaughtered by the militants. They are similarly silent about the hundreds of schools blown up by the Taliban. How many Malalas have been deprived of an education because of the stone-age mentality of these killers?

In talks I have given at universities in the US, the UK and Pakistan, I have been frequently asked about the drone attacks.

In response, I have posed a counter-question: if the drone attacks are stopped, what is the alternative? Should we allow these armed gangs to continue making life hell for the unfortunate villagers they hide behind? Should the Americans permit them to cross the border at will and launch attacks across Afghanistan?

For people like Imran Khan urging the governments of Pakistan and the US to halt their operations against the Pakistani Taliban, here is a sobering voice: in an article (Pakistan’s Peace Deals with the Taliban) on the Combating Terrorism Centre website, Daud Khattak concludes:

“None of the agreements with Taliban factions involved in attacks on Pakistan lasted more than a few months, and the breaking of each agreement resulted in severe bouts of violence including attacks on government installations, security forces and civilians.

“From the Taliban’s perspective, by levelling demands at the government and then entering into negotiations, it demonstrates to civilians in the tribal areas that militant leaders are strong enough to sit at the same table as the country’s top military officials. This solidifies support for the Taliban among their followers, and suppresses the voices of resistance from civilian populations living under their authority.”

The reality is that the Taliban understand — as Imran Khan and his supporters do not — that they must pull down the whole country to their primitive level if they are to succeed in their ambition to seize control of the state.

This is just what their Afghan cousins did when they were in power. They see talks as a tactic and not as a path to peace.

Ultimately, their attack on Malala demolishes the anti-drone argument in a way no reasoned argument ever could.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.