Original Articles

Politics of Drones -by Rab Nawaz

National pride or ghairat has traditionally been punch line of establishment’s version of Pakistani nationalism. It makes a lot of sense to Pakhtuns who have also been a favorite proxy for army. But the way it has been invoked again and again by rightist intellectuals and politicians like Imran Khan, it has become perhaps most common currency of politics across board to the extent that after drone attacks, Aafia Siddiqui and Raymond Davis issues are considered to be the most important national issues both rendering their legitimacy from ghairat argument.

One of the basic problems with Pakistan is that all too often big issues are twisted in certain popular narrative at the cost of evading some more important facts. Partition of Subcontinent, Wars with India, separation of East Pakistan and many other incidents bear witness to it. These days drone attacks’ is such an issue. There has been decades of crafting by the unelected ruling elite to ensure that Pakistani folks understand and interpret issues in certain way. Here my endeavor would be to present some thoughts in drones’ debate which might question this trend. The purpose is not to take any side at this moment but to appeal to take a more nuanced approach.

First of all, it would be pertinent to keep in mind the international context. Pakistan being international ally in War on Terror is obliged to act within its territorial jurisdiction against militants fighting against NATO. Here a more primal question would be whether Pakistan should be an ally in such a war or not. It is itself another topic but here it would suffice to say that the ideological ambitions and terrorist activities of al-Qaida, Taliban and other religious-sectarian militant groups operating within Pakistan are such a grave threat to Pakistan that it is left with no other option but to curb and fight back these terrorist groups. Pakistan, realizing this threat, decided to align with US for mutual benefit. After this, any double game at the part of Pakistan army was bound to frustrate US resulting in reaction. Despite many warnings, Pakistan army and ISI continue to support certain good Taliban. The recent Osama episode is perhaps the greatest evidence so far. Analysts have been foreseeing the repercussions of such duality long before and asking Pakistan to be fair in its dealings but Pakistan could not. That’s how US resorted to drones.

Is it justified for Pakistan army to support certain group of Taliban? Pakistani public never have a say in the formation of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Civilians, for their intervals of rule, were kept out of business of foreign policy. Army always had and continues to have monopoly over this domain. From creation of Taliban to military operation against them, it would be fair to say that Pakistani people had no say in the affairs. Public’s voice became relevant and hence was given space only when it could fit into the grand design of army’s policy ambitions. It would be more appropriate to say that public opinion has been indoctrinated, manipulated and spurred by army to gather essential domestic support for its foreign policy agendas. Hence the question of support for Taliban like Haqqani Group cannot be analyzed at the criterion of public opinion. Other standard would be merits of the policy itself. At this level, three important objections can be laid down against military’s policy; first the futility of hypothesis of so-called Strategic Depth centered on India as eternal enemy. Second the dangers of breeding ideological militia who can go out of control, the results of which we are already facing. Third the dislike against Pakistan in Afghanistan can result in more hostile neighbor at Western border. This is to establish why Pakistan army must stop supporting certain Taliban factions for its own sake of better future policy as well as to end the American excuse for drone attacks. It is needless to say that US wants a stable Pakistan at least right now because of the strategic partnership. So hopefully the end of Pakistan army’s faulty dual approach to Taliban groups will bring an end to drone attacks. Otherwise US will continue striking drones ultimately resulting in nothing but domestic unrest and frustration.

Let’s now see other actors and factors in debate on drone attacks. There are three main ways in which drones are being criticized namely in terms of sovereignty, national pride and civilian casualties. TV anchors and educated people normally use sovereignty argument. It sounds intellectually sound and patriotic but professors of this argument forget that Pakistani state never had effective writ in Fata. Nor did it ever seriously try to do that. Application of state writ along with corresponding laws is pre-requisite of sovereignty. Moreover, what about internal sovereignty in other areas of Pakistan like Balochistan, Karachi, rural Sindh, many militant sanctuaries in various areas of Punjab? So much so that it can be effectively argued that we don’t have sovereignty in Universities like Punjab University where beating and shooting takes place now and then but police does not dare to enter. Why do adherents of sovereignty argument miss all that and pick foreign aggression in Fata as sole breach of sovereignty? It has two explanations; while certain rightist anchors and intellectuals are known to tow military line for whatever ideological or other reasons, public in general has fallen prey to the distorted narrative spread by these intellectuals over decades.

National pride or ghairat has traditionally been punch line of establishment’s version of Pakistani nationalism. It makes a lot of sense to Pakhtuns who have also been a favorite proxy for army. But the way it has been invoked again and again by rightist intellectuals and politicians like Imran Khan, it has become perhaps most common currency of politics across board to the extent that after drone attacks, Aafia Siddiqui and Raymond Davis issues are considered to be the most important national issues both rendering their legitimacy from ghairat argument. Imran Khan in his recent protest in Peshawar against drone attacks went to the extent of saying that Pakhtuns’ ghairat in terms of taking revenge is something to be proud of. The problem with ghairat argument is that it is not an accepted norm in today’s world. This norm is product of authoritarianism, feudal society and chauvinism. An English equivalent of ghairat is honor. While dignity is an accepted value in today’s political discourse, honor is not. Both are different. Former is individual centered and lies within human rights framework while latter is collectivist and status quo centered. In Pakistani context, in order to carve another basis of hate against India and to leave the outdated social setup unchanged, ghairat discourse has been propagated by the rightist intelligentsia so much that most sensitive issues are being high-jacked by a hyper-emotional mob mentality.

Civilian casualties’ is the most important aspect in drone problems. No humanitarian law or law of war permits that. Its repercussions like having negative impact on War on Terror and breeding more extremism come later. The loss of innocent human life is ab initio wrong. It is widely believed and quoted that hundreds of civilians are dying annually in drone attacks. Interestingly this assertion has been refuted by researches carried out by Aryana Institute for Regional Research Advocacy and by some independent researchers including Matthew Fricker, Avery Plaw, Brian Glyn Williams, Shahid Saeed and Awais Masood. They have shown not only that civilian casualties are quite fewer but also that drones are pretty popular among ordinary people of FATA. But since there have also been evidences on the contrary including some victims who came on media, it is for certain that innocents have died though their number is not sure. In contrary to the falsified narrative of urban middle class, that the Talibanization is the expression of Pukhtun nationalism and radicalism is an inherent Pukhtun trait, the reality is far more unlike. Pukhtun intellectuals, political activists and civil society have always unequivocally supported the Drones as measure of relief. At the end of the day they are Pukhtun people and their elected representatives, at the helm of affairs, who have offered most sacrifices in combating the Talbanization.

Whatever may be the number of these deaths, the important question is how to stop or avoid such innocents being killed? One way suggested by political parties who are out of parliament including PTI, JI etc. is to come on to roads and streets and fight the state. Actually this is perhaps the only option they are left with for last many years. No matter how small the issue may be, rejecting electoral politics and doing street justice has been their sole answer. In certain situation they have gone as far as to argue for attack on Parliament and President’s house. They have no idea that they are not only undermining the importance of the institutions whose part they may become in near future but also strangling the rising public hope in democracy. A consistent presence of some established ex and current figures of military establishment with them is an indication of on whose behalf they are speaking. So we need to be clear that neither we can nor we should think of having street fight with NATO. US will never stop drones when its troops would be getting killed in Afghanistan by the people supported by our army. If Pakistan is US ally, then it has to act fairly putting aside its India-centric approach. Otherwise we will have to fight a long Jihad with US ultimately resulting in defeat and utter destruction of Pakistan which is indeed thought of a completely different world view.

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  • Very intelligent article; my compliments, Rab Nawaz!
    The goal of keeping civilian casualties to a minimum is part ot U.S strategic plans. The U.S. military more often than not, now will avoid a target until civilians are clear, even in the case of a high-value target, because the drone intelligence will eventually provide a better target later.
    Some combatants specialize in human shields as the Taliban, al Qaeda and TTP who fight in the midst of civilian neighborhoods. Terrorist rockets are sometimes fired out of schools and hospitals, or in and around non-combatants. In the U.S. military today, the legal test is the first test in engaging a target, and a little known fact is that lawyers are present and must sign off on questionable drone strikes; there are moral and ethical factors, and those are taken into context. In some cases civilian casualties cannot be avoided; but, anytime that you cause civilian casualties, there is potential for resentment in the community, province, tribal area, which is counter to objectives including negative impact on political solutions- commanders are expected to understand this and it becomes part of the calculus.
    I would end by saying that none of these moral or ethical factors cross the mind of the insurgents in Waziristan or terrorists who have turned up in places like Karachi or Lahore.