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Drone dilemma

KILLER drones pose a moral and policy dilemma for the US and Pakistan. The US has found drones an easy and low-cost option to kill targeted ‘terrorists’.

Over 500 drone attacks have been conducted on Al Qaeda and associated targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Mark Mazzetti’s book Way of the Knife provides a good review of the American side of the story.

Much of the debate in the US about drones has focused on whether the administration has the ‘right’ to kill US citizens without due process. The Obama administration has argued, rather unconvincingly, that it does have this right if the US nationals are ‘enemies’ in the war against terrorism.

Two UN special rapporteurs and, more recently, two human rights groups — Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — have issued reports asserting that the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen which caused civilian casualties violate international law and some could constitute “war crimes”. The UN secretary general and the UN high commissioner for human rights have opposed the use of drone strikes which kill innocent civilians. The UN General Assembly will discuss the issue this week.

First under domestic and later under international pressure, the administration has issued assurances that drone strikes are (meaning that in future they will be) authorised selectively and every effort made to limit civilian casualties. However, a recent article in the New York Times detailed half a dozen drone attacks on Miramshah which resulted in civilian casualties.

Despite the best intelligence, the likelihood of such collateral damage from distant weapons remains high. Apart from this moral hazard, the US must also consider the security and strategic consequences of justifying drone attacks since this technology is being mastered and could be used by other powers to put down their own ‘terrorists’ and domestic insurgencies.

Pakistan vociferously denounced drone strikes on its territory. Last year, parliament called for effective measures to prevent such unilateral strikes. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has directed Pakistan’s representatives to raise the issue in international forums and conveyed the demand for a halt to the strikes to President Barack Obama in Washington.

It is evident from the joint press conference after this meeting, that Mr Sharif did not receive assurances that the drone strikes will be stopped. Privately, he may have been told that, since the strikes have been successful in eliminating most of the top Al Qaeda leadership, they will end soon.

To obviously counter the Pakistani complaints, reports appeared in the US media, during Mr Sharif’s visit, indicating that Pakistani ‘officials’ were aware of and have endorsed US drone strikes. This is one of the worst-kept secrets of the ‘war on terrorism’. But the actual story is more complicated.

Based on conversations with some Pakistani ‘officials’, it appears that Pakistan, under pressure from the Bush administration, gave permission in 2006 for US drone strikes against the top 10 Al Qaeda leaders. However, as soon as some of these targeted leaders were eliminated, the list was ‘updated’ by the US with new names added. With the advent of the Obama and Zardari governments, the list became open-ended and unilateral.

Sources claim, in 2009, intelligence cooperation between Pakistan and the US virtually broke down due to differences over North Waziristan and the US attempt, through the Kerry-Lugar bill, to promote ‘civilian’ control over Pakistan’s military, and the US became convinced that Pakistan’s security agencies were playing a ‘double game’ in Afghanistan. Without their cooperation, the US was in danger of losing the ‘eyes and ears’ which made the strikes possible. It thus sent 400 additional people, the ‘officials’ claim, to staff its embassy and consulates in Pakistan, receiving visas from Pakistan’s Washington embassy without the concurrence of the ISI.

They add that one of the 400 was Raymond Davis. With these additional personnel, the US built its own intelligence network in Pakistan, enabling, among other things, the operation to track and kill Osama bin Laden.

Following the Salala attack on Pakistans border posts, the Jacobabad air base, from which drones reportedly flew, was closed and official cooperation on the drone programme ended. However, with its own ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground, the US was able to continue the strikes from bases in Afghanistan.

If bilateral relations are to be revived on a sustainable basis, Pakistan and the US need to find closure on the drone issue. This can only happen if both sides replace duplicity and hypocrisy with honesty and openness.

For the US, it is evident that the political costs of drone attacks outweigh their military value. The use of drones and other robotic weapons should become regulated through negotiated international law. For its part, Pakistan seems to have made the judgement that US drone strikes, whatever their tactical value, are politically counterproductive. If so, it should make a determined effort to end them. It is within Pakistan’s capabilities to dismantle the ground network which enables drone strikes.

Islamabad has several other options. It can initiate serious bilateral diplomacy to convince Washington or, failing this, have recourse to international forums. Pakistan’s demand for respect of its sovereignty and prevention of civilian casualties will have wide support from the majority of states and the global legal and human rights community. This may evoke American ire, but Washington will find it difficult to ‘punish’ Pakistan for defending international legitimacy. The effort will accelerate an end to the strikes.

If Pakistan’s security agencies believe that drone strikes are a useful tool against Al Qaeda, and may be needed to fight domestic insurgencies, they should develop the capability or acquire it — from the US or friends like China which is exporting similar systems.

Finally, the innocent victims of drones must not be forgotten. Pakistan should seek justice and compensation for them and their families from the US. Without accepting guilt, the US should provide such compensation as a way of regaining goodwill in Pakistan. Organising relief and compensation for the victims may also help in the declared objective of negotiating peace with the Taliban.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Munir Akram, "Drone dilemma," Dawn. 2013-10-27.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Al-Qaeda , Human rights , Drone strikes , Terrorists , Terrorism , Taliban , Democracy , President Obama , PM Nawaz Sharif , Yemen , Somalia , Pakistan