By Talat Masood

Aug 18, 2013

mil_drone220[1]The Drone strikes by the U.S. against targets in Pakistan’s tribal belt (FATA) are a highly controversial issue and major source of friction in US-Pakistan relations. Initially, the Pakistan government gave tacit approval to the use of drones as was admitted by General Musharraf in one of his interviews to an international television channel. For several years, in fact right until April 2011, American remotely piloted aircraft have been taking off from the Shamshi air base in Baluchistan for their missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also a reality that the successor coalition government of PPP, in concert with the military leadership, continued to pursue the same policy of agreeing to the use of drones in private but opposing it in public.

However, last year as national elections to the parliament drew closer and the main opposition parties, in particular Imran Khan’s Tehrik-i-Insaf, whipped up a campaign against drone strikes the thinking in government circles underwent a change. The opposition obviously was making political capital out of it by projecting the government in poor light and accusing it to be subservient to US dictates. Imran Khan went even to the extent of organizing a protest march to South Waziristan against drone attacks, conveying as though root cause of militancy is essentially a reaction to drones.

Since the new government of PML (N) has assumed power it has taken a more emphatic position on drone strikes and has expressed its reservations at the highest level, including to the Secretary of State John Kerry who was recently on a brief visit to Pakistan.

Few would disagree that use of drones by the U.S. in FATA undermines national sovereignty and is a violation of international law. The issue becomes even more complex if the country happens to be an ally, as both countries claim to be in the fight against terrorism and share several common goals. Moreover, drone strikes lower the image of the state in the eyes of its people, can cause collateral damage and kill innocent people; notwithstanding that Taliban and Al Qaeda use innocent women and children as shield against drone attacks. Frequent use of drones instills a sense of fear among innocent civilians and traumatizes communities. Consequently, the political fallout from drones is highly negative and that in turn generates a lot of anti-Americanism, creating new enemies among the people, and making it difficult for any government to maintain good relations with US.

The unintended consequence of the use of drones by U.S. is that it sets a precedent for other countries to follow, which could turn out to be a dangerous phenomenon and give rise to new conflicts. In fact, the current US drone policy could hurt its own long- term interests. It would be difficult for US to oppose China or Russia if they were to start droning other countries to prevent a perceived threat! These are all valid reasons for Pakistan to oppose the use of drones.

On the other hand, drones provide a distinct advantage, especially at the military level that cannot be ignored. Drones have a tactical utility by keeping the militants on the defensive and containing them. Besides, United States is not willing to give up its use of drones and being a super power is in a position to ignore protests from other countries. President Obama in a policy statement at the National Defense University in May 2013, made it clear that drones will be used in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. He went to the extent to justify his actions as legal. In his speech he stated, “ Under domestic, and international law the U.S. is at war with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.” From U.S. perspective drone is the most potent weapon to deal with the threat emanating from militants taking refuge in safe havens in lawless countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, etc. In this way U.S. does not have to commit boots on the ground and that keeps their troops from harms way.

Moreover, Afghan war being very unpopular back home Washington would like to avoid casualties. President Obama in his policy speech to the National Defense University further justified the use of drones and stated, “ Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.” There is no denying that this is very true. What is most disturbing that our politicians are deliberately ignoring this reality?

The U.S. is less concerned about the long-term implications and negative fallout of its drone policy. Criticism is gradually growing within U.S. against the use of drones. The critics though still a minority, do not subscribe to President Obama that its actions are legal. On the contrary they consider it as a violation of international law and warn against the dangers if other countries were to acquire the technology and start using drones to preempt potential threats.

American point of view is that Pakistan has already lost control of North Waziristan and few other parts of the tribal belt. As a consequence the militants continue to launch cross border attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces. For U.S. reluctance on the part of Pakistan army to launch a military operation in North Waziristan provides U.S. another reason for launching drone strikes.

It would also be unrealistic on the part of our politicians to expect that once the US stops using drones the situation in the tribal belt is going to normalize. In all probability if the threat of drones were removed then the Tehrik-i-Taliban and other militant groups would have greater freedom of maneuver to expand their influence geographically and ideologically. Perhaps it is for this reason General Musharraf and later the civilian government has been discreetly acquiescing to its use.

FATA had always enjoyed a greater level of autonomy than the rest of Pakistan. But with the government losing control over some areas it is further getting isolated from mainstream Pakistan and coming under the influence of Taliban. From these sanctuaries Taliban and other militant groups have been launching attacks in Pakistan. The Taliban have declared a war against our state. They are continuously targeting security installations and institutions to weaken the state. Taliban have openly stated that they do not accept the constitution of the state nor democracy and would impose their retrogressive brand of Islam through brute force. In addition they are especially opposed to education of girls and brutally attacked young Malala who stands valiantly steadfast in promoting education.

They treat women as chattels and if allowed to pursue their policies will change the very nature of the state and the future of coming generations. It is highly disappointing that the rightist parties including the PML (N) and Tehrik-i-Insaf have been very vocal against the use of drones but have failed to condemn the atrocities and acts of terror committed by the Taliban. What is needed from our politicians is that they should take a firm position against the atrocities of the Taliban and support our valiant armed forces in their fight against the insurgents.

This will contribute in reconciling the differing positions of the two countries on drones. Efforts should also be made that CIA and ISI share intelligence and when both concur on target identification only then drones be used. As of now U.S. and Pakistan do not enjoy that level of confidence to share intelligence, but if we are to remain allies in the fight against militancy and terrorism then it should be possible to move in that direction. Pakistan should also move towards clearing the sanctuaries in North Waziristan and other pockets of militants from FATA. Then US will have no reason to violate our sovereignty. A more balanced and pragmatic approach on the part of policy makers in the two countries can solve the dilemma of drones and make our skies more friendly and less threatening.

Talat Masood

(The writer is a retired Lieutenant General and former Secretary Defense Production. He writes and comments on strategic affairs and security issues.)

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