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America and the drone issue

Since my last article the debate in Washington on drones continues. The confirmation of John Brennan as the new CIA chief has been put off, with Senator Rand Paul of the Select Intelligence Committee saying that he would not permit a vote until his question on whether the president had the authority to use a drone strike against a US citizen on US soil was satisfactorily answered. Brennan, in his written reply, had only said “the administration has not carried out drone strikes inside the United States and has no intention of doing so”.

The congressional debate, however, is clearly focused on the conditions that should attach to the use of drones on US territory or against US citizens. It certainly does not lean towards banning the use of drones for attacking non-US citizens in foreign countries. On that score, all Congress seems to be demanding is that there should be more information shared with it and that, in some cases, drone operations should be subject to judicial approval.

President Barack Obama has said that he would work with Congress to craft a mechanism that would make the drone campaign more open. Brennan himself favours transferring most drone operations to the Department of Defence, which Congress believes tends to be more open to sharing sensitive information. Brennan has also said that even though the option of having a special court to oversee drone operations was complicated, it was worth considering. It is not clear whether the proposed court would consider all strikes or only those against American citizens whose right to life under the American constitution could not be taken away without “due process”.

This debate will probably end next week when Brennan will be confirmed. It will probably be preceded by an announcement that henceforth, most but not all drone operations would be conducted by the defence department and even perhaps by the setting up of a special court which alone would authorise the placing of the name of an American citizen on the drone ‘kill list’.

For our region, however, this debate is not relevant. The current discussion in Congress builds upon what has been called the ‘playbook’ that was being drawn up by the administration to govern the use of drones during Obama’s second term. This playbook was endorsed by various American agencies only when it was agreed that for the next year or more the drone campaign against targets in our region would be exempt from the restrictions that were being envisaged.

This was reported by the Washington Post on Jan 19 and was based on interviews with US officials. There is no doubt in my mind that these interviews were authorised and certainly, there has been no contradiction despite the uproar this caused in Pakistan.

From the perspective of US planners, this exemption was understandable. It was inconceivable that in a nation that prides itself on being a ‘nation of laws’, a playbook seeking approval for “signature strikes” — that is, strikes against groups that had over an extended period of observation betrayed terrorist intent even though no specific individuals had been identified — or for treating all adult males in a particular area as combatants would be considered legal even if the justice department resorted to ‘legalisms’ to justify illegal acts. After all, as the Washington Post reported, American officials believe that they killed more Al Qaeda leaders in signature strikes than when they attacked clearly identified Al Qaeda operatives.

Again, treating all male adults in the vicinity of a drone attack as combatants made it easy to claim that annual civilian fatalities in drone attacks had been in the single digits despite relatively clear evidence to the contrary. Above all, this exemption permitted a higher tempo of drone attacks before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

One must therefore assume that drone attacks in the Pak-Afghan region will continue and will be the principal reason for the Americans to maintain a residual military presence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Nato forces is completed in 2014.

There is no doubt that in international law drone attacks are illegal. Objections on this score are justified even though people might argue that our sovereignty in these areas has been in name only for many years. More importantly, we have also been conditioned to believe that drone attacks are detrimental to Pakistan’s interest. As a result, surveys have established that 95 per cent of Pakistanis who know about drones consider them a bad or very bad thing.

Is this true? Today we are being torn apart by sectarian and extremist violence in areas far removed from the tribal areas. The over 80 people, mainly Hazaras, who died in Quetta last week were not killed by people who had been radicalised by the drones. In the tribal areas thousands of people, including virtually all the Maliks, were killed by people whose agendas had been set long before drone attacks were intensified.

I suspect also that our own military offensives — because our weapons are less precise — have caused more civilian casualties than the drones. That is why we have urged the Americans to transfer this technology to us.

Our interior ministry has put out figures on the number of civilians killed in drone attacks. To promote rational and pragmatic debate the ministry should also compile figures of the innocent civilians killed deliberately by the militants and the civilians killed inadvertently in our own military offensives. It would also help if we had an estimate of the number of people who fled their homes because of the drones, the number who fled because of the militants and the number who fled because of army offensives.

We might then reach the conclusion that the benefits outweigh the costs and educate our public accordingly. We could then focus on securing a greater say in targeting policy and thus ensure that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan is targeted along with Al Qaeda and foreign militants. One report says that Mullah Fazlullah, who is held responsible for the attack on Malala and earlier on American forces, is now a priority for the drone operators and that there are “assets focused on killing him”. If this is true, it may be an indication of the direction cooperation, not confrontation, can take.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Najmuddin A Shaikh, "America and the drone issue," Dawn. 2013-02-20.