By Chandra Kamal Borah*
Drone strikes in Pakistan have remained a controversial issue. As would obviously be the case, Pakistani government from time to time condemns the drone strikes as a violation of its sovereignty. Intellectuals have criticised it on the ground of legality, and in the US, it has been criticised on the blowback such drone strikes have created in terms of radicalisation. But, a recent finding has provided a slightly different narrative to the existing discourse.
In a recent piece published in the Washington Post, Aqil Shah, Assistant Professor of the University of Oklahoma, has forwarded an alternative explanation of the ‘blowback effect’ of the US-led drone strikes in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. His explanation is based on a semi-structured interview of 147 teenagers (18 years old or older) in the affected areas.
His findings contradict the well established proposition that drone strikes have generated blowback effect and contributed towards radicalisation. As opposed to it, Aqil Shah finds that more than 79 per cent respondents have endorsed drone strikes. Again, contradicting the claim that drone causes higher civilian fatalities, 64 percent respondents (including several from areas close to the theatre of regular drone strikes) believe that drones strikes have accurately targeted militants; 56 percent have attributed the previously witnessed civilian casualties to the pre-2012 ‘signature strike’ policy of the US.
Listening to subaltern voice has been considered very important to get an alternative narrative. The sample of Aqil Shah, which constitutes mostly teenagers from the ground zero, reflects an amateur but a version of narratives that are not seen in the mainstream media as such. The endorsement of the drone strike is a reflection of two other equally likely possibilities of: (1) large-scale ground operation by the Pakistani army and (2) the presence of Taliban regime or growing strength of ISIS in the Af-Pak region as intimidating forces.
The ‘about to become youth’ section of the society, who are perceived by the radicalising forces as an easy target, is perceived suspiciously by the government forces. And thus, their endorsement of the drone strikes probably indicates their negative attitude towards radicalising forces. It is also an appeal to the state apparatus to contemplate a better and sustained approach to deal with the problem of radicalisation and militarisation simultaneously; and, not victimise the youth of such regions unnecessarily. Notwithstanding the fact that drones are effective in killing targets, they are not intended to defend the population. The entire population, especially the fragile youth section are still vulnerable to be attacked through militarily and ideologically.
The Pew Research Center survey findings that buttress the blowback effect have been criticised by Aqil Shah as methodologically wrong, because its survey is based mostly on urban respondents. The contradictory findings also reflect the differences in attitudes of elite people and the people on the ground. The urban respondents who were chosen for their political consciousness, are more concerned about political correctness i.e. ‘prestige’ or ‘sovereignty’ of Pakistan, rather than the reality on the ground. The condemnation of the Pakistani government on the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour resonates the same narrative. On the contrary, the finding of Aqil Shah reiterates the need and necessity to consider subaltern voice for a robust alternative narrative.
The contradictory findings have ignited a debate and policy dilemma in the US: whether the use of drones should be continued (intensified) or not. The given narrative would probably favour continuation. But, it leads to another set of questions that the author has not relegated its importance, i.e. the psychological impact of drone strikes on the entire population, which is accepted by one-fourth of the respondents. Addressing the issue of trauma and psychological impact on the civilian is the most important factor to deter radicalisation. We need to remember, radicalisation is an outcome psychological indoctrination. So measures need to be taken up to ensure the ‘state of safe’ feeling even under an armed drone.
The ‘state of safe’ created by targeted killings done by an armed drone is not a concrete state to measure. To a great extent, the target choosing mechanism of the stakeholder states is responsible for both the accuracy of those who are to be ambushed and the mishaps too. The covert drone strikes ran by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) relies, more often than not on faulty satellite intelligence mechanism, causing unwanted casualties. If such targeting policies are made transparent, then the apprehensions and fears over misplaced targeting among the innocent population at large can be overcome.
Due to the covertness of its operation, CIA continues to rely on faulty satellite intelligence. It certainly causes unwanted casualties leading to frustration of common people. There are many instances, when the CIA had no clue about the nature of the target. For instance, in 2011, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16 year old teenager, was deliberately killed in a drone strike in Yemen, while having dinner with his friends. The US government claimed that he was 21 years old and a member of Al Qaida. But, when his birth certificate was produced in the US court by then the government had to concede their mistake. Such unfortunate incidents, which are instrumental for radicalisation, could be avoided simply by maintaining democratic control over targeting policy. If such targeting policies are transparent, then the dubious and apprehensive ‘state of being attacked’ on the ground can be transcended.
*Chandra Kamal Borah is a Research Scholar at Diplomacy and Disarmament Division (CIPOD), JNU, New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]