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The Pakistan exception

Drones have been dotting the skies above Pakistan for several years now. In Fata, they are routine inhabitants of the thankless sky, their characteristic sound an accompaniment to the rhythms of daily life as it exists in conflict-ridden Pakistan.

Public opinion on drones is difficult to gauge in this country, not least because it relies on survey research, which in turn relies on the truth, which in turn is hard to tell in a place where most lives are endangered.

Ethnic fissures and long-nurtured hate and difference complicate the situation, as does the cornucopia of political agendas and bureaucratic avarices that pad the foundations of such discussions.

All of these, not to mention Pakistan’s age-old civil-military fissures, have been used by the US to insist that drones are not a violation of Pakistani sovereignty because the latter, secretly or tacitly or sub-textually, has acquiesced to their presence.

A significant episode in this story took place some weeks ago when Ben Emmerson, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, spent three days in Pakistan investigating the issue.

During this time, he met officials from various branches of the government. By the end of the exercise, Emmerson arrived at the same conclusion that Pakistan has been asserting for a while now: the Pakistani government does not consent to drone strikes, which are in fact a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

The news was reportedly widely. Here was a clear statement by an independent body, the UN, plainly contradicting Washington’s position that drone attacks are consented to and hence pose no problem in sovereign relations.

Despite the momentary tumult, however, the drone strikes continued just as they had before. The conclusion of the UN was ignored, as it usually is when the matter falls between a superpower and a small country lacking in clout and influence.

Among foreign policy analysts in the US, the thorny question of Pakistani consent to drone strikes usually gets one of the following responses. First, nodding heads at American think tanks opine that Pakistan’s civilian government does not control foreign relations and hence its assertions regarding drones are not to be believed.

If the dissenters point out that the US does conduct numerous dealings, including collaborations and treaties, with the same civilian structure when doing so suits its interests, they are simply ignored or met with a smirk. The shakiness of Pakistani democracy thus becomes a convenient hedge behind which the US can erect its theory of secret approval for drone strikes.

The second oft-repeated premise regarding drones and Pakistan proceeds thus: if Pakistan truly opposes drone strikes, it can use one of its F-17 fighter planes to knock them down and make a clear statement to the US regarding its position.

This particular mantra — with all its troubling, taunting tones — disregards conveniently the consequences that would accrue to Pakistan if such a move were made.

The US already uses theories such as the hot pursuit of militants across the Afghanistan border as legal justification for incursions into Pakistani territory. Given this, an act of Pakistan shooting down an American Predator drone could easily be magnified to equal an actual declaration of war by Pakistan against the US.

In simple terms, if in the complete absence of such hostile acts the US considers itself justified in breaching Pakistani borders, shooting down a drone could be used to justify far more invasive incursions into various parts of Pakistan.

The drone debate has picked up steam in the US in recent months. The confirmation hearings of CIA chief John Brennan in February and Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster attempt in March have brought forth issues of the constitutional legality of drones in American news headlines.

The case of Pakistan, the country that has so far been subjected to the bulk of drone attacks, however, is almost completely absent from the discussion.

In extensive dissections of legality and constitutionality, thus, the issue of drone attacks is being treated largely as an abstract question, without a human face, without human casualties and without the complexities of real lives.

In addition, when they do include the case of Pakistan, discussions remain limited to an argument over the number of casualties, civilian or otherwise. Curative metaphors abound, proffered by proponents of drones to show their use as a noxious, if unwanted, treatment for terrorism by the Americans to naughty, unwilling Pakistan which cannot itself combat the infection.

The purported shift of the drone programme from the CIA to the Department of Defence substantiates this assertion. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the move would address transparency and accountability concerns by bringing the programme under the military chain of command. The most pertinent part of the news is that the drone programme in Pakistan would be treated as an exception and would remain under the umbrella of the CIA.

Being considered an exception clearly indicates that accountability, transparency and a clear chain of command, while important considerations in other countries, are not really necessary for Pakistan.

Unless Pakistan can insert itself into the debate over drones in the US and illustrate that the drone war is not an abstract idea to be implemented in the future — that it is taking place in a real country, with real casualties and real complexities — no change can be expected in US policy on drones in terms of Pakistan.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


Rafia Zakaria, "The Pakistan exception," Dawn. 2013-04-03.