22 April, 2011
By Dr Qaisar Rashid
Since the US drone strikes began on the tribal belt of Pakistan, it was the first time, on March 17, that a Pakistani army chief issued a written statement condemning the a strike which took more than 50 innocent lives in the Dattakhel area of North Waziristan. Besides tribal elders, the casualties included children. Scores of people were wounded.
The statement by Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was long overdue. A condemnation of US drone strikes should have come much earlier from the army. The strikes, which were escalated in 2008, claimed a high toll of human lives last year. But, while the statement by Gen Kayani was a positive thing, a mere condemnation was insufficient in view of the atrocities inflicted on people assembled for a tribal jirga to resolve a dispute between the two parties.
Emboldened by the statement of Gen Kiyani, several political leaders have shown solidarity with the tribal people. All of them use every opportunity to declare that their respective parties have an anti-drone stance. Innocent civilians had died in drone attacks a number of times before but no political leader staged a protest against the atrocities. Even parliament did not go beyond passing protest resolutions against drone strikes.
The response by politicians indicates that the army has not yet lost its political appeal. Because the PPP is in government, as a result of a few compromises facilitated by the US, or it might have been in the forefront of such protests to expand its vote bank. Any idea put forward by the army is lapped up by Pakistani politicians. That is the way a politician gets in the good books of the army. When will politicians start to lead the country?
The explanation for the changed attitudes lies in the case of CIA contractor Raymond David, who shot two young Pakistani motorcyclists dead in Lahore on Jan 27 and indirectly caused the deaths of another two people. Interestingly, the period during which Davis was under detention before his release remained free of drone strikes. Davis’ surprising release under US pressure, despite his shooting in Mozang in broad daylight, and the fact that CIA operatives like him are lurking all over Pakistan are points which strained relations between Islamabad and Washington.
In reprisal for the disgrace faced by the CIA during Davis’ incarceration, the CIA resumed the drone strike immediately after the sharpshooter’s release. After getting its agitation recorded with the US at the diplomatic level, the government decided to compensate the victims monetarily.
Had Raymond Davis not been captured, the drone strike in Dattakhel would have created no reaction and the consequent human casualties would have stirred no one into action. Similarly, had the casualties in the drone strike not occurred immediately after Davis’ controversial release, no statement of condemnation would have been issued following the US drone strike against the jirga, and not a penny of compensation would have been paid to the victims. It is yet to be seen if the condemnations of the drone strike were a one-time phenomenon or they will be issued after every incident of this kind.
Since last year, the US has increased the frequency of its drone strikes, besides broadening their target areas. Secondly, it has unilaterally increased the number of agents like Raymond Davis operating in Pakistan. The US has also expanded the base of CIA operations in Pakistan. On the other hand, Gen Kayani has given an assurance to the tribal people that they will be protected in future, but it remains to be seen how that will be ensured.
Regarding the anti-drone strategy, there are two options available with Pakistan. The first option is that it persuades the US to curb the strikes. The drones can be shot at but as a result a war may break out between the US-Nato forces and the Pakistani forces. Pakistan cannot afford that, for obvious reasons. In 2001 the UN gave a mandate to the US-Nato forces to stay in Afghanistan to root out Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. Afterwards, as per the Af-Pak policy announced by Barack Obama in March 2009, the tribal belt of Pakistan was included in the Afghan theatre for operational purposes. At least publicly, Pakistan did not object to that sort of diplomatic relegation. The US-Nato forces claim that their failure in Afghanistan is because of insurgents’ attacks on them from across the Pakistani border. Though the term Af-Pak was abandoned by the US in January 2010, the policy is still functional. Resultantly, every gathering in the Pakistani tribal belt (be it social or political) is seen with suspicion by the Americans and consequently a pre-emptive drone strike is carried out. Hence, neither can Pakistan curtail the frequency of drone strikes nor can it compel the US to narrow down the target base of these strikes.
The second option with Pakistan is to live with drone strikes. There are two ways to do that. First, establish a liaison with the drone handlers (the CIA) to inform them through proper channels if there is a socio-political gathering taking place in the tribal belt. If drone strikes are unavoidable, they must be humanised to minimise the loss of innocent lives. Second, the drone handlers could be educated to appreciate tribal traditions. If the US intends to weaken the bad Taliban and promote the good Taliban, it should be made to realise that indiscriminate drone attacks enrage the local people. Consequently, the popularity of the good Taliban will shrink while the ranks of the bad Taliban will swell and the Taliban will be persuaded to gang up with Al-Qaeda. That development would be detrimental for both Pakistan and the US.
Nevertheless, in the Pakistan-US context relations it would be perilous for Pakistan to insist on having control over the use of the drones in the war.