Challenge of drone attacks

By Syed Talat Hussain:


THE drones are back. After nearly a month-long break, the attack in Angoor Adda, South Waziristan on April 13 has dashed the hope that Washington was seriously considering racking back its lethal weapons.

However, more than Washington’s persistence, it is Pakistan’s policy of ‘contrived ambiguity’ on drone operations inside its territory that must be blamed for a situation that has left the civilian and military leadership angry and tense.

While it has bleated out protests off and on, the government has tolerated hundreds of attacks with equanimity. There has been much talk of stopping the drones, but no evidence to indicate that the government, or the opposition, is the least bit interested in seriously reviewing this policy.

No attempt has been made to craft a national consensus on the persistent violation of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty by the unmanned US war-planes. The army too has endorsed this policy by avoiding making the drones a central issue of strategic dialogue with the US administration.

Yet the inherent dangers of this policy of looking the other way while drones struck self-selected targets were always evident: the attacks ran the risk of missing the target and causing massive collateral damage, meaning innocent civilian lives.

The resultant grievance of the locals led some of them to join hands with the Taliban, while others in anger and desperation decided not to cooperate with the law-enforcement agencies, thus depriving them of the necessary support for conducting clean-up operations in these areas.

An even bigger peril that the drone attacks entailed related to Pakistan’s engagement with the US. It was only a matter of time before criticism of these attacks spilled over into the debate about the essence of US policy towards Pakistan, making the lofty talk of strategic ties serving the interests of Washington and Islamabad sound hollow and bogus.

Somehow the Yousuf Raza Gilani government evaded tackling these issues. The drones kept on raining hellfire missiles on the national soil. Even after hundreds of strikes and many more casualties, the pretence in Islamabad was that it did not poison the bilateral equation and that Pakistan and the US were friends whose long-term interests had a natural convergence.

This would have continued except for the sheer force of circumstances the Raymond Davis controversy left in its wake.

Davis’s act of wanton aggression against Pakistan’s citizens and his subsequent release brought to the fore the dark side of US operations in Pakistan. In a way, he personified Washington’s arrogance and Islamabad’s pitiable vulnerability to
manipulation. Subsequent events only reinforced this point.

Less than a day after his departure, a drone attack killed nearly 50 Pakistani nationals in North Waziristan. Stung by this audacity and feeling badly let down, the Pakistan Army made one of its strongest protests. ISPR’s March 17 press release quoted army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani as “strongly condemning the Predator strike”. He called the strike careless and callous and dubbed it “a complete violation of human rights”.

Gen Kayani assured “the brave people of Waziristan” that the army would do its “best and utmost to protect their life, honour and dignity at all costs”. He also gave a thinly veiled warning against future attacks when he said that such aggression against the people of Pakistan was “unjustified and intolerable under any circumstances”.

Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir joined the chorus of condemnation, summoned the US ambassador Cameron Munter and demanded an apology and explanation. Ironically, Mr Munter did not deem it greatly urgent to personally convey Pakistan’s anxiety to the State Department. He stayed put in Islamabad for almost a week before proceeding to Washington.

Realising how lightly the matter was being taken, Gen Kayani worked his special relationship with Adm Michael Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and attempted to get the message across to President Barack Obama.

These were all desperate measures because those seeking the cessation of drone attacks knew that this was not possible. But these were necessary measures as for the first time Pakistani policymakers came face to face with the crisis that the drone attacks had created which went beyond collateral damage.

Suddenly, in full public view Pakistan was shown to be an underling — rather than an equal partner in a strategic equation — who was being punished for daring to hold an American national for over a month. By condemning the post-Raymond Davis release drone attack and seeking to pre-empt another one, Pakistan’s policymakers were trying to show spine. More than that, they were trying to reconstruct the broken myth of being an ally of indispensable importance, one that could not be taken lightly.

But this faith in Washington’s receptivity to Pakistan’s deep sensitivities was shattered again last week when three drone attacks struck Angoor Adda. This attack was particularly perturbing because it came after the gap of almost a month and immediately at the end of DG ISI Gen Shuja Pasha’s talks with his CIA counterpart in which he apparently sought rational grounds for the drone attacks.

Just as the Datta Khel attack was timed with Raymond Davis’s departure, the one in Angoor Adda coincided with the arrival of Gen Pasha back in Pakistan.

So on the drones the message from Washington is two-fold: one regardless of the costs, the strikes shall continue; two, Pakistan cannot alter even the timing of the strikes, much less their targets or frequency.

This is the hard lesson regarding the subject of engaging with the US. It refreshes the common proverb that Washington’s
friendship can be worse than its enmity. Even more important, it is a reminder that by ignoring drone attacks on its soil for years, Pakistan has lost its voice in Washington. Soverei-gnty conceded negligently cannot be regained easily.

The writer is a senior journalist at DawnNews.

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