Droning on about drones

Published February 14, 2013

Photo By Uzair Khan Niazi

The buzz of drones is building to a crescendo.

I’m not referring to the drones themselves (though the tribal belt’s skies do often seem choked with the pilotless Predators; six strikes occurred over just nine days last month).

Rather, I’m referring to public debate. With Congress holding confirmation hearings for CIA director-nominee John Brennan — an architect of the Obama administration’s drones policy — discussion on op-ed pages, over airwaves, and across the social mediasphere has escalated to a fever pitch.

In Pakistan, there is much ire over civilian casualties. Reliable figures are highly elusive, though many cite the data of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Early this week, the BIJ was projecting that up to nearly 900 civilians have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2013.

That averages out to about 100 per year — a sizable number, and, from a humanitarian perspective, 100 too many.

Now let’s consider some very different types of statistics.

In 2012, measles killed 210 children in Sindh. Karachiites staged numerous anti-drones protests last year, but I don’t recall them holding any rallies to highlight a scourge that was twice as deadly for their province’s kids than drone strikes were for Pakistani civilians.

Nor do I recall any mass action centered around unsafe water. More people in Karachi die each month from contaminated water than have been killed by India’s army since 1947. Bad water also takes the lives of 30,000 Karachiities each year.

Widen the lens geographically, and you’ll find that more than 130 Pakistanis nationwide perished from measles in January 2013 alone. Or that 630 Pakistani children die from water-borne illness every day (that’s more than three times the total number of Pakistani children the BIJ believes have died from drone strikes since 2004).

I am not minimising the civilian casualties from drone strikes. Nor am I denying that drones deserve rigorous debate in Pakistan (and beyond). Still, it’s striking how so much less is said about afflictions that affect — and kill — so many more people than do drones.

The reason, of course, is the allure of anti-Americanism. It’s easier — and more politically expedient — to rail en masse against Washington’s policies than Pakistan-patented problems (I also acknowledge the deep concerns about drones that go beyond civilian casualties — like radicalisation risks and psychological trauma).

That said, the often-invoked claim that Pakistanis are united against drones is dubious. Some analysts respond that there are Pakistanis both utterly unaware of their existence and quietly appreciative of their tactical value. Others contend that Army personnel express positive views about drones.

Nonetheless, the we’re-united-against-evil-drones narrative is powerful and long-standing. A 2010 article by researcher Farhat Taj concluded, logically enough, that many Fata residents welcome drone strikes for killing the militants that terrorise them. Taj was pilloried. One commentator disparaged her as a “zany middle-aged graduate student with a reputation for preposterous claims.” Another branded her a traitor.

The relentlessness of this all-in-against-drones narrative has a silencing effect; other critical elements of the debate are less often heard in Pakistan. I refer, for example, to questions about the security establishment’s position on drones. Yes, the civilian government’s public stance has grown increasingly strident in opposition. But could those six rapid-fire strikes last month have been executed without the tacit approval of the military (or without its intelligence assistance)? Tellingly, according to the BIJ, the Obama administration’s longest pause in drone strikes in Pakistan — 55 days — occurred from late 2011 to early 2012. That’s when US-Pakistan security relations were at a virtual standstill.

Another overlooked issue: Several months ago, reports surfaced that Pakistan was developing its own drone technology — and was looking to China to help expedite this process. Pakistani drones may address the violation-of-sovereignty allegation that hounds American-launched ones, but would they spare more civilian lives?

Above all, however, is the question of uncertainty. Washington is notoriously — and infuriatingly — opaque about its drones program. In Pakistan, it is exceedingly difficult to obtain casualty figures because strikes occur in such inaccessible areas (the commonly cited tallies of the New America Foundation, Long War Journal, and even BIJ are culled from news reports).

Why spill so much ink on unknowns, yet so little on what is crystal clear — such as that Pakistan suffers from an acute water crisis and an alarming epidemic of a perfectly preventable disease?

The answer is simple: Fixating on drones strengthens the America-out-to-get-us narrative — as energetically espoused by many within Pakistan’s conservative urban middle class. It’s a demographic far from the drone zone, yet easily within earshot of the anti-American, Urdu-language media.

Drones also offer splendid fodder for a popular conspiracy theory: The CIA is colluding with the Pakistani Taliban to destabilise Pakistan — part of a sinister joint plan between Langley and Miran Shah to bring down the state.

No wonder that buzz is so deafening.


The author is the Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org


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.



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