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The Case for Drones – By Raza Habib Raja

The latest news about war in Afghanistan, which is making headlines, is the suspension of US military aid to Pakistan. Among other things, the rationale given by the US administration is the refusal of Pakistan’s military to allow further use of Shamsi Airbase for launching of drone attacks.

Drone attacks have recently attracted a lot of controversy and are vehemently opposed in Pakistan by the nationalist circles. The sentiments against drones are not restricted to “loss of sovereignty” but are also supplemented by continuous reminders about loss of innocent lives. And yes, the critics are not just restricted to ultranationalists in Pakistan but also include some western liberals who construe drone attacks as a symbol of traditional American hegemony. In fact drone attacks have actually “united” apparently very diverse voices.

Before presenting my take on the issue of the drones, I would like to fully admit that these attacks do result in the loss of innocent lives as well. To deny an obvious reality would be intellectual dishonesty and whether we support or oppose the drone attacks, we need to ensure our credibility remains intact. Yes, there is loss of life and it is tragic. But the situation is akin to a kidnapper hostage scenario where you have to take an action even at the risk of hurting some of the hostages to prevent larger loss of life and to also avoid being blackmailed by the kidnappers.

Moreover, things have to be viewed in much broader perspective in a complicated situation like war in Afghanistan. If there were no drone attacks then the alternative would have been a full-fledged ground invasion which would have actually entailed much greater loss of innocent lives. The areas where militants are hiding are not an easy terrain from military ground invasion’s perspective and therefore elimination of militants through full scale ground invasion will result in much greater collateral damage. In addition such an invasion will require much greater role of the Pakistan army which in turn will create far greater political repercussions. In fact, Pakistan army has been involved in full scale ground offensive before and there was wide spread hue and cry over the army being used to kill Pakistan’s “own people”.

I have heard a number of times that bringing development and education in those areas would cure extremism. Assuming that there is some linkage between these variables and extremism, we would still need to weed out the already entrenched militants to give ourselves ANY realistic chance for development process to even initiate. Militants have to be eliminated and there is no question about that. You cannot get a foothold into the area without at least first weakening them enough and drones are one efficient method of doing that.

However the biggest opposition to drones is coming from those who claim that drones are a blatant violation of the sovereignty. One of the most hyped slogans on the national media in the past few years has been of National Sovereignty. And nowhere is it raised with more intensity and ferocity than when a drone attack takes place. As the evidence has kept on mounting over the years that a significant number of militants are homegrown and have now turned against the state, the old conspiracy theories which used to brand them as “strategic assets” of the West have lost much of their credibility. Now the new fad is to mourn the so called loss of sovereignty.

Is the sovereignty really violated? The answer is a tricky one because in purely theoretical terms perhaps it is. But realistically it is not violated because the areas where drones are aimed do not have the effective writ of the Pakistani state. In real terms sovereignty is not there in the first place because if it was there those areas would not have become open sanctuaries for the militants. Sovereignty is underpinned by state’s monopoly over physical violence and virtual absence of state in a state syndrome. And those areas depict failure when measured against these yardsticks.

Over the years the Pakistani establishment and a series of governments have literally watched helplessly as militants use those safe sanctuaries to promote terrorism in the mainland. If anything, the actual violation of sovereignty is being carried out by the militants rather than the drones which are aimed at eliminating them! Realistically speaking drones are helping the Pakistani state to establish sovereignty. Of course due to the widespread anti-American sentiments, which are continuously whipped up by the mainstream media, it is impossible for a large number of urban middle class to understand it. Over the years, the urban population has developed a knee jerk reaction where anything connected with the US always ends up provoking hyper emotions which in turn makes it impossible to have rational deliberation.

What has also surprised me is that often the past war in Afghanistan in 1980s has been blamed for the present mushroom growth of extremism in the border area of Pakistan and since USA was one the prime stakeholders in that war therefore it also gets its share of criticism. Keeping this historical perspective in mind those who blame USA’s 1980s war (particularly some of the Western liberals who are also critical of drone attacks) should actually expect it to clean up the mess. Elimination of extremists whether through drones or military action, if rightly viewed, actually is American repayment of the historical “debt” it owes.

Finally, drone attacks are aimed at killing militants in a targeted manner compared to suicide blasts which are conducted by the same militants to kill innocent people indiscriminately. More than 35,000 people in Pakistan have died due to religious terrorism and yet our media and urban middle class is more worried about drones which aim at perpetrators of those horrendous crimes. We are worried of violations of sovereignty whereas the sovereignty in real sense does not even exist.

Pakistanis and some of the western liberals need to look things in proper perspective and they will find out that by and large drone attacks have actually helped.

Source: Huff Post

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Jehangir Hafsi


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  • Excellent post with many valid points. Thanks for not being confused on the issue, as most of the fashionable liberals are.

  • Drones or not, one thing is certain that we will have to destroy the terrorist sanctuaries in FATA, before any progress is achieved.

  • The relations between Pakistan and America hit new nadirs every week. The stoppage of $500 million of funds to the Pakistani military was inevitable, especially since General Kayani had already asked the military aid to be diverted to civilian usage. The expulsion of 100 US “trainers” was demanded by the Corp Commanders and General Kayani and General Pasha had to acquiesce to the demands of rank and file of the Pakistani Army. The US has also halted the $300 million in coalition support funds which are being withheld as retribution for lack of progress in attacking North Waziristan. The bottom line is that the US has reached its limits in persuading the Pakistanis to do what they want. Holding back funds is the only leverage the US has. It has now played that card. When General Kayani announced that the Pakistani military will not use US funding, they had already calculated the consequences of denying food and water to the Shamsi Air Base, ostensibly leased out by the UAE to the USA.

    The ISI now is hunting down and breaking up the CIA network. The lowest the CIA could ever go was to use Polio eradication for its nefarious purposes. This is a crime against humanity. The tribals have already been suspicions of the Polio drives. The disease has almost been eradicated from the planet. It survives in the remote parts of Pakistan. The CIA has used doctors and the Polio drive for its own profit. This is a huge setback to the Polio drive.

    Using doctors to try to get the DNA samples of the OBL compound failed, but it now has grave consequences for world health and US Pakistan relations.

    The security outlook for Afghanistan faces unsurmountable issues. In retaliation for the blocked U.S. aid, Pakistan will be obliged to follow through with its threat to withdraw some of his soldiers from the border areas and dismantle more than one thousand border sentry posts. With Leon Panetta taking over as defence secretary the Pakistani military is wary of his new team. The Pakistan military following an independent and more nationalistic strategy against the militants will begin to drawdown its forces in Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

    This de facto ceding of territory to the Afghan Taliban has consequences for American war planners. The US is the occupying power in Afghanistan. It has inadvertently or by design left a vacuum in the border area. The Pakistani government suspects US complicity with the TTP and most analysts think that the US forces have given space to the TTP so that it can launch attacks on Pakistan from Afghan soil. Over the past six weeks, the Pakistan army has fired over 760 rockets and artillery shells into three Afghan provinces, killing at least 60 people. This is retaliation for the cross-border terrorism from Afghanistan. As the US attacks areas in FATA, the Pakistani Army will continue to retaliate against the foreign sponsored TTP.

    The decision to sanction the Pakistani Army has long term consequences for America. Policymakers in Washington have to live with the risks invloved in alienating a new generation of Pakistan Army officers.

    So the game on the chess board continues. As General Petraeus begins his counter-insurgency campaign inside Pakistan, the ISI has been gearing up to thwart that war. Hundreds of US spies have been rounded up.

    The covert war in in full gear. President Barack Obama is turning to the CIA director Gen. David Petraeus to implement more quasi-military JSOC type of operations. The CIA’s decade old presence in Pakisan is now being overtly challenged by the ISI. THe CIA director will feel the pressure. Intensifying the covert war and increased drone attacks will have serious consequences of US-Pakistani relations.

    General Petraeus is now leading an illegal war. He will be a battlefield commander of a robotic air force and a small army of U.S. and Afghan paramilitaries, many of whom are former special operations soldiers. General Petraeus’s campaign in Pakistan will be a civilian-led covert action, authorized under Title 50 of the United State Code. To Pakistan, it will look a lot like war.

    There are international consequences of this illegal war. Beijing overtly and covertly will be the biggest impediment to US machinations. The ocnsistent
    Chinese message to its neighbors has been that the US cannot be trusted. They will continue to say “I told you so”.

    Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while on a tour to China was given unprecedented access to some of China’s most important military capabilities. –including a visit to the HQ of China’s Second Artillery Corps, the unit responsible for China’s nuclear deterrent and many of its rapidly-growing missile forces. Admiral Mullen allowed him to sit in the cockpit of a J-11, one of China’s most advanced operational jets, and to inspect a late-model diesel-electric submarine. As America’s banker the Chinese General Chen Bingde, chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, offered some stinging unsolicited advice for policymakers in Washington. This is just the beginning. As a representative of the country that holds one Trillion Dollars of US debt, the caustic remarks must have pouring sulphuric acid on US sensitivities.

    “I know the U.S. is still recovering from the financial crisis,” Chen said. “Under such circumstances, it is still spending a lot of money on its military and isn’t that placing too much pressure on the taxpayers? If the U.S. could reduce its military spending a bit and spend more on improving the livelihood of the American people … wouldn’t that be a better scenario?” General Chen’s carefully crafted message was undoubtedly designed to reinforce doubts about the Pentagon’s ability in the long run to fulfill its security commitments to the region. In other words, Beijing has told Washington, your war efforts in Afghanistan are unsustainable. China already has great friends in the neighborhood. That message resonates in the region.

    US officials may choose to ignore Chen’s remarks and carry on with business as usual. However this will have long-term consequences for the region–already a playground for various powers. While China will reassert its right to own the South China Sea, it will continue to thwart US effort to encircle it from the Pamirs.

    The Recent visit of President Zardari to Tehran cannot be billed as a routine trip. In the aftermath of US sanctions on the Pakistani military, Tehran has offered to stop in and provide Pakistan with financial and energy help. Tehran has built the IP pipeline right up to its border, and this pipeline needs to be hooked up the Pakistani gas grid at Sibbi. Tehran has also offered 1000 MW of electricity at subsidized rates. There is talk of cooperation on Afghanistan and resistance to the CIA. THe two countries will probably form joint networks to weed out CIA spies from both countries.

    The Pakistan military is in the process of initiating peace deals with the militants. With a chagrined China, an angry Iran, an upset Pakistani military “and a despondent President Karzai, the shattered US exit strategy in Afghanistan is in pieces. If the US cannot count on Pakistani help in disengaging from Afghanistan, it will be stuck in the quagmire-— and this may as well cost Mr. Obama his elections.

    As Confucius said–”we live in interesting times”

  • Drone attacks are wrong and cowardly, regardless
    by Ethan Casey

    Drone attacks are wrong. I’m sure to be called an appeaser of terrorists for saying that, particularly in light of the latest events in Mumbai. But I think it’s important for Pakistanis, who are on the receiving end of the humiliation and much worse that drone attacks inflict, to hear an American say it. Hopefully some Americans will read this, too. First and foremost, whatever the official pablum or even the truth about “suspected militants” or “alleged al Qaeda leaders,” innocent civilians are being killed.

    Sometimes it’s important to start from first principles, and I think one of those is that it’s wrong to terrorise women and children with unmanned aircraft piloted remotely from the other side of the planet. In the dark calculations of a flawed political world, even something that’s clearly wrong can be justified, if not truly justifiable, if it has good results. The philosophical school that makes such arguments is called utilitarianism, and its adherents – such as, I suppose, the Obama administration – could say drone attacks are necessary because they somehow protect Americans. That argument is marketable to the US public, precisely because it’s vague and plays on people’s fears and ignorance. And, from a Machiavellian point of view, it has the merit of being unfalsifiable: If terrorist attacks don’t happen in America, the US administration can say that’s because of drone attacks in Pakistan.

    But meanwhile, actual, non-hypothetical life in Waziristan and beyond is being severely disrupted. When we hear about drone attacks at all in the American media – which we often don’t – it’s usually either asserted or simply assumed that they’re necessary and having the right results. The experts assured us that we were winning in Vietnam, too. I wish we would stop taking their word for it. One US military officer in Vietnam said something that became infamous as a symbol for that entire doomed war effort: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Is that what America is doing all over again in Waziristan?

    I don’t know, because I haven’t been there. But when I traveled in Pakistan in 2009 for my book Overtaken By Events, I made a point of seeking out people who had lived there or in Dera Ismail Khan, a city that has become all too frequent a dateline.

    My Pakistani-American friend Dr. Shahnaz Khan urged me to try to go there, but acknowledged that it might not be safe for goras to visit. “It’s a small, sleepy town,” she told me. “People were minding their own business, [didn’t] want to get in any trouble, to the point of being lazy, frankly. Since all this happened, a lot of people have migrated into Dera Ismail Khan. … [The] cantonment is right next to the river, and people used to go out and walk by the river. And now they have bunkers, and it’s very difficult for people from the city to go there. My mother lives there and now, we have friends, and it’s really hard for them even to visit her.” All the displaced people fleeing the drone attacks were disrupting life in Dera, Shahnaz told me. “They don’t have any permanent places to live, and they have a different language, different culture,” she said.

    An urbane young businessman I met in Islamabad, Faiysal Ali Khan, echoed Shahnaz. Refugees from the drone attacks, he told me, “have had a huge, huge impact on our culture, our society, our people. All these things got disturbed. They brought in the guns, the narcotics, all the illicit trade. Not that I’m saying that they’re bad or anything. They’re refugees; what are they supposed to do?” I asked him about the loyalties of the general public in Waziristan. “On one side, the drone strikes are happening,” he said. “On the other side, Pakistan Army is also bombing you. Americans also bombing you. International community in Nato, ISAF; they’re also bombing you. Everyone is bombing. They’re bombing, bombing, killing innocent people, everything. Why should we have any feeling towards any of these?”

    In Karachi, I met a 15-year-old Waziri refugee. “Most of these drone attacks kill innocent people,” he told me through a translator. “They ask our government to tell the people that all of the people who are killed are foreigners. But that is not the case. Most of them are innocent people. Every person has now become a victim of the US, from these drone attacks. What the US is doing by these drone attacks is creating more problems for themselves, rather than solving problems. Every person now that did not want to carry weapons, now wants to carry a weapon, because his children have died in these US attacks. They’re just making it worse for themselves.”

    That was more than two years ago. Have things gotten better since then?

    I don’t believe there’s any big conspiracy in the US to disregard voices such as these; it’s just that no one here wants to hear what they’re saying. A few of us are trying to get others to listen. I’m doing what I can, through my writing and public speaking, not only for the sake of suffering Waziris and other Pakistanis, but for the good of my own country. America is damaging not only its soul, but also its already badly compromised national economy. And – notwithstanding any circumstances or excuses – attacking people from afar, at no immediate risk to oneself, is cowardly.

  • Defeat of the drones
    by Rafia Zakaria

    ‘GAMING in Waziristan’ is an art exhibition taking place in London’s Beaconsfield Gallery from July 19 to Aug 5.

    Using the archives of the UK-based charity Reprieve, documents from 2007-2011 and the work of three artists, the exhibition is an attempt to give visual reality to a war that is largely invisible.

    Photographs from North Waziristan, often taken in the moments after a drone strike, are a pictorial attempt at dislodging the reputation of the drone as a tool of sterile, precise and perfect extermination.

    The attempt is commendable, particularly in a world where the unseen is summarily relegated to the unreal and consequently goes un-mourned.
    Particularly apt is the western venue, a milieu where many have settled on drone warfare as the solution to the rising cost of producing a human soldier, the terrorist jargon and target-sterilising the messy business of killing.

    But the defeat of drones as the antidote to fears of a terror-filled world is not being effected by art alone (although such a route would indeed be ideal). The recipe for taking out militants in Pakistan has been quite simple: drones — marvellous inventions that can kill but not be killed, that can fly for hours, whose anonymous operators can strike from the silent comfort of an anonymous control room.

    The landscape they mapped was stark, the mobility of a single human visible against the relative immovability of mud-coloured infinity. Men and militants could be tracked and hunted, and a single moment of foolhardy repose could mean the elimination of an important leader like Baitullah Mehsud.

    But warfare, even this new robotic version of it, is always messy and some others, nameless and faceless from their lack of lethality, were killed — their mourners limited by the sealed-off terrain to those unfortunate enough to be left behind. These supposed militant leaders or those mistaken for them, or living near them, soon numbered hundreds of thousands, forming caravans of hopelessness on the move.

    While US officials touted the wonders of drones, those who knew them best turned south to cities away from the constant deathly buzz — away from the prospect of appearing lethal to some distant, unknown persecutor, away from the only landscape they knew how to survive in. The defeat of the drone, an instrument of warfare that played on dated definitions of borders and perpetrators, has resulted from the demographic changes spawned by its own famed efficiency. What the drowned-out wails of powerless victims could not accomplish, the shifts in population have done instead.

    As droves of refugees empty out of the drone-ravaged tribal areas, and filter into crowded urban areas, the calculations of the best place to set up your militant shop or jihadi outlet also change. As any mischievous five-year-old will inform you, the worst place to hide is the most obvious one, where everyone looks first.

    The limits of the drone then have been spelt out by a change in strategy, a move to new hiding places where teeming millions provide the camouflage that terrain and tribal intrigue once did.

    Newly minted AfPak strategists, long-time lovers of drones, are trained to sniff out the singular sin of global jihad in the mutations of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. When ‘ethnic’ warfare appears in the think-tank teacup, eyes begin to glaze over, and attention flags. Those were the old wars, petty post-colonial squabbles over slums and survival, or the right to live in a little less squalor — all missing the neat labelling crying out ‘Islamist global jihad lies here’.

    But in war calculations that do persevere, the boredom of one side is always an opportunity for the other. As the violence in Karachi, whose many million fragile egos are also armed and unforgiving, amply testifies, a little local knowledge can go a long way, ignite long-festering faultlines and destabilise not a remote tribal area but a city.

    In its calculations, the architects and the executors may never be known and are largely irrelevant; the end result is lawlessness, chaos, a terrified population and the ability to do whatever, wherever and whenever. Through this trajectory, the mutation of the ‘war on terror’, its urbanisation, causes foes to proliferate, making recognition nearly impossible and life for those seeking secrecy near perfect.

    As is the case with other abandoned instruments of mass killing, the decreasing strategic value of drones is unlikely to be accompanied with notes of apology or admissions of inertia. In the afterglow of their imagined perfection, drones are likely to continue to ply the skies over abandoned hideouts and once-familiar hangouts yielding ever fewer heads to stake on the posts of victory.

    As the US wraps up its operations in Afghanistan, and constructs a victory over terror on Osama bin Laden’s ‘missing’ corpse, it withdraws into the amnesic reclusion that lies between episodes of imperial expansion.

    Perhaps in the soul-searching born of sombre parting moments, American lawmakers orchestrating the final exit will pause at the idea that drones do not defeat terror and possibly only displace it, enabling a murky metamorphosis that will continue to terrify.

    Drones, even if they disappeared tomorrow, have left Pakistan forever changed, demographically altered, its nascent democratic institutions flailing. It is these urban, dread-darkened streets that those left behind must continue to ply, after the drones, defeated or merely redundant, are finally gone.

  • Photo exhibit shows alleged US drone strike deaths

    ISLAMABAD: A London gallery opened a photo exhibit Tuesday that allegedly shows innocent civilians killed by US drone missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal region along the Afghan border.

    US officials do not publicly acknowledge the CIA’s covert drone program, but they have said privately that the strikes harm very few innocents and are key to weakening al-Qaida and other militants.

    “I have tried covering the important but uncovered and unreported truth about drone strikes in Pakistan: that far more civilians are being injured and killed than the Americans and Pakistanis admit,” said Noor Behram, a 39-year-old photographer who has worked with several international news agencies.

    Behram spent the last three years photographing the aftermath of drone strikes in North and South Waziristan, important sanctuaries for al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan. He managed to reach around 60 attack sites, and the exhibit that opened Tuesday at the Beaconsfield gallery in London features photographs from 28 of those strikes.

    US officials “don’t see that they target one house and along with it, two or three adjoining houses also get destroyed, killing innocent women and children and other totally impartial people,” Behram told reporters in Islamabad on Monday.

    It is often difficult to verify who is killed in the strikes because the areas where they occur are dangerous and off-limits to foreign journalists. News agencies often rely on local intelligence officials to determine who perished in a strike.

    The exhibition is sponsored by the British rights group Reprieve and by the Foundation for Fundamental rights, an NGO started by Pakistani lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar to help drone strike victims.

    The exhibit includes a photo showing an 8-year-old boy allegedly killed in a drone strike in 2009 in South Waziristan, his body surrounded by flowers as it was prepared for burial. Another showed a man in North Waziristan holding what is described as a piece of a missile fired from a US drone, with the rubble of several destroyed mud buildings behind him.

    Other photos in the exhibit are more gruesome.

    A poll conducted last year in the tribal region by two US-based organisations, the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow, found that more than three-quarters of the residents surveyed opposed the US missile strikes, and nearly half thought they mainly kill civilians.

    But some analysts and activists have suggested people in the tribal region are not free to express their true views about the missile strikes because they fear Taliban reprisal.

    One political and human rights activist from the Khyber tribal region, Lateef Afridi, said last year that he has found particularly strong support for missile strikes among people he has met from North Waziristan, where most of the attacks have been focused recently.

    Akbar, the Pakistani lawyer backing the exhibit, has sought to bring lawsuits against CIA officials connected with the drone program. He filed a report to Pakistani police Monday calling for an international arrest warrant for John Rizzo, the CIA’s former chief counsel. Last year, Akbar filed a similar report against the CIA chief in Pakistan, prompting the spy agency to withdraw him from the country.

    Reprieve’s director Clive Stafford Smith said he believes the drone strikes are doing more harm than good in Pakistan.

    “I hate to expose the world to pictures of a child with his head blown half off, but that is what the US military calls ‘collateral’ damage,” said Smith.
    “This is another terrible US policy in the war on terror.”