Howling at the moon

January 09, 2010


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Many of us in the punditry profession are guilty of making generalisations about what is happening in the tribal areas without having visited them in recent times. Thus, when we hear about the anger and outrage supposedly sweeping though the people of Fata over the frequent drone attacks, we tend to accept this as the gospel truth.

This myth was recently exploded by Farhat Taj in her article 'Drone attacks challenging some fabrications', published recently in a national daily. Dr Taj is an academic at the University of Oslo, but more importantly, she comes from the region and has a degree of access to tribal Pakhtuns that is rare.

Over the last couple of years, the air has been thick with charges that the US drone campaign is 'counter-productive' as it is supposed to have caused the death of many non-combatants. The Pakistani government has lodged numerous protests with the Americans over the collateral damage their attacks have caused, and how they are destabilising the Zardari administration. The hypocrisy inherent in these protests is little short of breathtaking, considering that many of these remote controlled aircraft are said to operate from runways located in Pakistan.

However, as Dr Taj explains in her important article, ordinary people in Fata are delighted that at least somebody is killing the ruthless thugs who have seized control of their villages and their lives. She says that Pakistani and US media have tossed around the figure of '600-700 civilian casualties' without citing any evidence.

According to Dr Taj, “...after every attack the terrorists cordon off the area and no one, including the local villagers, are allowed to come even near the targeted place. The militants themselves collect the bodies, bury the dead and then issue the statement that all of them were innocent civilians.”

Dr Taj goes on to explain that the only civilians who have been killed are the family members of the militants in whose houses other terrorists have gathered. In effect, these killers are using these women and children as human shields, hoping their presence will deter drone attacks. In any case, it is impossible to make even a rough estimate of how many civilians have been killed in the drone campaign.

The writer goes on to say “The people of Waziristan are suffering a brutal kind of occupation under the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It is in this context that they would welcome anyone, Americans, Israelis, Indians or even the devil, to rid them of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Therefore, they welcome the drone attacks. Secondly, the people feel comfortable with the drone attacks because of their precision and targeted strikes. [People prefer them to] the Pakistan Army's attacks which always result in collateral damage....”

Dr Taj makes perfect sense after all, why would the people under Taliban and Al Qaeda occupation and oppression not cheer when these murderers are killed? What does not make sense is the chorus of protests over these drone attacks emanating from people like Imran Khan and Hamid Gul — to name only two — who claim to speak for the people of the tribal areas. What exactly is their agenda, and why are they acting as cheerleaders for these terrorists?

The breach of our supposedly sacred sovereignty has been cited as the reason for this outrage over the American campaign of targeting terrorists seeking shelter in the tribal areas, and attacking western forces over the border in Afghanistan. However, why should the Americans wait passively for their soldiers to be picked off by militants who use our territory as a base for cross-border attacks?

With the concept of sovereignty comes the responsibility to exercise control over territory. Successive Pakistani governments have failed to seal our borders, and the entire region is suffering from terrorism as a result. All our neighbours have complained publicly and privately over the Pakistani state's inability or unwillingness to effectively prevent cross-border attacks of the kind we have been witnessing for over two decades now. Indeed, we have been accused of using our lawless borders to further our establishment's agenda.

In any case, sovereignty is never absolute. Just as nations have the duty to prevent effluents from their factories from contaminating rivers that flow down to lower riparian neighbours, so too do they have the responsibility of halting terrorists from crossing into other states.

Dr Taj concludes her article thus “Moreover, Al Qaeda and the Taliban have done everything to stop the drone attacks by killing hundreds of innocent civilians on the pretext of their being American spies. They thought that by overwhelming the innocent people of Waziristan with terror tactics they would deter any potential informer, but they have failed.... Interestingly, no one in Pakistan has raised objections to killings [sic] of the people of Waziristan on charges of spying for the US. This, the people of Waziristan informed, is a source of torture for them that their fellow Pakistanis condemn the killing of terrorists, but fall into deadly silence over the routine murders of tribesmen....”

I have often wondered about this callous hypocrisy too. If we condemn the Americans so vociferously over the drone campaign, should we not be more critical of the thugs who are killing far more Pakistani civilians? And yet, it seems that our more popular Urdu anchorpersons and TV chat show guests reserve their outrage for Washington, while giving the Taliban and Al Qaeda a free pass over their vicious suicide bombings that have taken hundreds of innocent lives in recent weeks.

Why then are we silent over the daily killings of fellow Pakistanis by the TTP and other terror groups, while frothing at the mouth over the drone attacks? Clearly, this irrational and double-faced reaction is based in the anti-American sentiment that has taken root in Pakistan.

However, if we are to win the war against extremism, we need to analyse where our best interests lie. First we need to face the fact that the war is not going well. Even though the army has cleared most of South Waziristan of the TTP, it does not have the manpower to both hold the area it has wrested from the terrorists, and to take them on in the other regions they have fled to.

We need to wake up to the reality that the enemy has grown very strong in the years we temporised and tried to do deals with them. Clearly, we need allies in this fight. Howling at the moon is not going to get us the cooperation we so desperately need. A solid case can be made for more drone attacks, not less.