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VIEW: The True Cost of Drone Charades

First Published in SHE Magazine / Dec 2012

The other day cricketer turned politician Imran Khan was unceremoniously hauled off a plane and detained for questioning in Toronto over his anti drone stance.

Khan does not like drones.

The Taliban do not care for them either. Ordinary Pakistanis are passionate about sovereignty, and conflicted about how to handle the ‘safe haven’ situation, which leaves them reaching for the pitcher of outrage after every violation. The past six years has seen a noticeable spike in drone strikes followed by rising temperatures on the ground.

The people on ‘ground zero’ interestingly do not necessarily share these sentiments and might even go along with the idea of using targeted strikes to eliminate a common enemy. More on these people can be found in Irfan Husain’s excellent book Fatal Faultlines – Pakistan, Islam & the West.

WikiLeaks cables place the State on the scene when covert wars became an active part of the scenery. Pakistan is not the only target rich environment and countries like Somalia and Yemen are also recipients of US-led drone program. Some simple drone math reveals that to date there have been a total of 323 drone attacks with only 10 recorded strikes from 2004 -2007. The drone strike figure has reportedly hit the 313 mark in just 4 years (2008 – Oct 2012).*

Though Islamabad and Washington have been at loggerheads over cross-border terrorism (Salala), Abbottabad-gate, wayward CIA agents and of course unannounced visits by drones, those paying close attention however will hear condemnation of drone attacks offset by wistful longing. Because of the nature of COIN warfare, the armed forces recognize the need for advanced drone technology that allows them to pursue fleeting targets of opportunity while minimizing collateral damage.

A common argument on Twitter-sphere is that giving American’s leeway hands our enemy on the Eastern front a licence to do the same to, say Hafiz Saeed of Lashkar-e- Taiba (LeT) fame, for instance. The United States remains an ally if only on paper and there happens to be an implicit understanding between the two nations on conducting such strikes; Pakistan’s neighbours on the other hand, can put away their stealth designs.

Pakistan’s declared red flags are ‘boots on the ground’ and barring sneaky SEALS or joint operations, the U.S. has respected these lines. While both countries may not always agree on the choice of target, they can chalk up their successes to shared ‘intel’ and precision targeting courtesy the Reapers/Predators lurking in the skies.

Pakistan’s limitations in the technological department are partly the reason behind this uneasy alliance. The recently concluded four day International Defence Exhibition & Seminar (IDEAS) 2012 proudly showing off armed drone capability attest to its mounting ambitions.

Some might mistake this as a new chapter heralding the end of Pakistan’s decades old reliance on American technology. The alternate to American controlled drones would probably be Pakistani led drones which might pacify those voices who object the ‘Made in USA’ label but only in theory. Because those that decry the frequent violations also find the human cost appalling. Whether it is an American sitting in Nevada or a Pakistani in Jacobabad, the risk of collateral damage remains the same.

Successes notwithstanding, the blowback from drone attacks has steadily pushed the nation to the brink of collapse. The one-sided picture has allowed naïve politicians and opportunistic media personnel to tie every failure from sectarian killings and religious intolerance to increased radicalization and unrest in Sindh and Baluchistan with the secret drone program. And it has caused the sympathy bank of Taliban to swell at an alarming rate.

The mixed signals have seriously compromised the military’s ability to expand operations, stoked the flame of anti-Americanism, undermined the State and offered the Taliban room to manoeuvre. The farce prevents the public from seeing how the presence of sanctuaries threatens the integrity of the State. It allows the extremist to hijack the narrative and use the space to play on the public’s emotions and redirect the ire from Taliban sponsored terror to American made Hell-Fires (missiles fired by US drones). Their strategy has been effective and extremism has now taken on the mantle of an unpleasant, yet understandable side-effect of Western hegemony and not, as is the case a destructive ideology

Khan, who missed his flight and some fund raising lunch because of his detention, had come on the radar because of his anti - drone march to Waziristan. That drones have alienated a major part of the nation should not come as a surprise to the Western world. Staging impromptu run-ins with immigration however is no way to win converts.

This policy of deniability has hurt not only the war on terror but also the military’s standing with the public. Ownership of the drone partnership could have saved precious moments spent battling over sovereignty and spared Pakistanis the sight of the State asking its military if it can shoot the drones knowing perfectly well why it won’t. That time could have been better spent finding ways of breaking news of its role in the shadow wars and that such a partnership has nothing to do with the lure of shiny hardware.

Cultivating the public trust will be tricky for a military perceived as a spineless stooge for standing idly by while drones played havoc with its sovereignty. Pakistan’s current problem with safe havens cannot be cured by replacing drone strikes with pretty Hearts & Minds campaigns - or by putting up costly charades for that matter.

* accessed on 11 November 2012

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