ISI CHIEF Lt Gen Shuja Pasha was en route from America to Pakistan after meeting the CIA director when drone strikes in South Waziristan killed four militants. The timing of the strikes was unfortunate, following reports that Pakistan had asked the US to limit its drone programme.
Not surprisingly, the Pakistani reaction to the latest strikes was histrionic: the prime minister railed against them in parliament; Shahbaz Sharif called for a rejection of civilian aid from the US, arguing that Pakistani blood cannot be bought with dollars, and the media accused the US of mocking Pakistan’s request. Despite these dramatics, it is unlikely that the US will heed Pakistan’s request for a suspension or curtailment of the drone programme. To truly change thinking on this issue, Pakistan will have to adopt a far more nuanced and dispassionate approach, one that is based on fact and legal frameworks rather than furore.
Ever since army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani described drone attacks as “acts of violence”, Pakistanis have believed that their unified outrage can coerce the US into suspending the strikes. But the consensus in Washington is that the drones are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
There are several reasons for American adamancy on this issue. The programme ostensibly targets militants involved in the Afghan insurgency who seek sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The strikes thus boost the morale of US troops in Afghanistan who can pursue militants until the Durand Line, but no further.
Moreover, US policymakers subscribe to a narrative that suggests the drone strikes have tacit support among the terrorised Fata population. Building off the analyses of several Fata-based journalists (as well as commentary by David Rohde, the New York Times reporter who spent seven months in Taliban captivity) Americans counter criticism of the drone programme saying that Fata residents value the strikes: they cause less collateral damage than the Pakistan Army’s conventional bombing tactics, and they’ve disrupted a variety of militant operations.
Indeed, for fear of drone strikes, militants conduct shorter training sessions with fewer recruits, avoid using satellite phones, travel shorter distances and keep a lower profile. Noting this, some in Washington write off anger against the drone programme as the shortsightedness of Pakistanis who don’t have to deal with the daily trauma of Taliban occupation the way Fata inhabitants must.
There are other strategic calculations at play too. The US still believes that a Pakistan Army operation against militants in North Waziristan is necessary. The drone programme could be used as leverage in this context — its curtailment or suspension could be offered in exchange for army action.
There’s also an institutional angle. As part of the budget deal struck recently to avert a US government shutdown, funding for the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Fund has been transferred from the State Department to the Department of Defence (DoD),
which originally controlled the fund, but had conceded it to the State Department to ensure more civilian oversight of foreign military assistance programmes. To accommodate budget cuts, the fund is now back with the DoD.
This means that the US-Pakistan relationship, at its logistical core, is a military-to-military interaction. This dynamic reinforces the transactional tone of the bilateral relationship, and privileges security concerns over civilian considerations.
With the DoD once again controlling a significant aspect of the US-Pakistan exchange, one can imagine that the emphasis will be on achieving security targets through the drone programme, with less patience for civilian grievances about casualties and sovereignty.
Finally, there is a perception that Pakistan’s drone fury is actually a test of US trust than a talking point. US officials have revealed that Pakistan has asked for advance notice of drone strikes. Since pre-intelligence requires the US to trust that Pakistani intelligence officials will not tip off the targets, the request is seen as a way to evaluate the state of the ISI-CIA relationship after recent bruising.
In response, Pakistani leaders’ protestations against drones have to be more innovative than emotive. Bemoaning civilian casualties is less effective, since these are believed to have been reduced. Plus, Maj Gen Ghayur Mehmood as in charge of troops in North Waziristan admitted recently that the majority of those killed by drones are terrorists.
Rather than bicker about numbers, Pakistan should demand transparency and propose a legal framework that forces the US to own the programme and clarify who can be targeted. According to the New America Foundation, most victims are low-level militants (between 600 and 1,000 people were killed in 118 drone strikes in 2010, but only a dozen were described as militant leaders). Islamabad should push Washington to confine the programme to high-value targets, and then seek a definition of the same. Is a valid target an enemy combatant? Or simply a hostile actor beyond the reach of conventional law-enforcement?
Ultimately, Pakistan’s drone debate needs consistency and clarity. If the argument is that the drones aren’t effective (despite a sharp escalation of strikes in 2010, there were more than 50 suicide attacks across the country) Pakistan should draft a more compelling counterterrorism strategy. If the genuine complaint is civilian casualties, then Islamabad should stop requesting a transfer of drone technology, since people will die no matter who runs the programme. And if this is about national sovereignty, then Pakistan should prepare for a tough conversation about how military and civilian aid also undermine self-jurisdiction.
*The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.
NOTE:This is a cross post from DAWN NEWS>