By Sabahat Khan
Unilateral U.S. drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan have been a contentious and thorny issue between Washington and Islamabad for some years now but a new political movement being spearheaded by Imran Khan – leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) – is bringing the issue to a new head. Imran Khan last week led a motorcade of hundreds of vehicles packed with thousands of party supporters and human rights activists from around Pakistan into the heartlands of an insurgency that emerged as a reaction to the stalemated U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign against the Afghan Taliban. The protest was reported by over a hundred media outlets and heralded as a success particularly as protestors were championed for their daringness in the face of security threats.
Imran Khan, now the most popular political figure in Pakistan, will have boosted his credentials further with elections just months away, but other political parties can be expected to launch their own protests against U.S. drone strikes as elections draw closer. What began as a highly limited use of drones forces under the Musharraf regime has spiraled out of control since the fragile PPP-led government assumed office – growing from a total of 10 strikes between 2004-2007 to 284 in 2008-2011. As the Obama Administration intensified drone strikes, public support for ending them – including militarily – has grown more widespread across Pakistan. As such, the question of unilateral U.S. drone strikes has become the key foreign policy issue in the lead up to the general elections due in early 2013.
Familial-tribal allegiances supersede all others but religion for the nearly 3.2 million Pashtuns and with every child and civilian killed by U.S. drones, hundreds of thousands tribesmen are motivated to avenge the killing of their loved ones – drawing tribesmen closer to militants that can help exact revenge by attacking U.S. interests, the Pakistani state, and civilian targets such as marketplaces in Pakistan or in Afghanistan. Estimates suggest that for every suspected militant killed, a civilian including children and women is also killed or injured – but the true cost is much higher and the number of civilians killed for every militant could be a ratio as high as 30:1 because the U.S. assumes every military-age male killed in a strike-zone to be a combatant unless intelligence explicitly disproves that posthumously. Secondly, civilian casualty figures do not include civilian casualties from direct retaliatory attacks militants carry out inside Pakistan or Afghanistan in the aftermath.
Fragmented but growing increasingly stronger, the opposition in Pakistan has formed a consensus on zero tolerance for unilateral U.S. drone strikes – Imran Khan has declared he would order any U.S. drones shot down as prime minister, and the position of Nawaz Sharif has shifted to the same. Although the Pakistan Air Force can down U.S. drones encroaching into Pakistani airspace, the fragile PPP-led coalition has been unwilling to risk the backing of Washington by launching such steps. However, last year even the PPP-controlled National Parliament was forced to finally adopt a resolution demanding Washington halt unilateral strikes immediately. The protest march to South Waziristan by Imran Khan is however the first political offensive by a mainstream political force inside Pakistan against U.S. drone strikes, although in 2011 the CIA station chief in Islamabad had to leave the country when judicial proceedings were opened against him. The short term aim of the protest march was to focus greater international media attention on the issue and ultimately create enough international political pressure on Washington to abandon its secretive program in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Failing that, future steps could entail destroying the aircraft kinetically and possibly bringing the issue to the United Nations Security Council.
Unilateral U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan are contributing to economic deprivation and fomenting lawlessness in the tribal areas, critics argue, and conflict directly with efforts by political leaders to integrate the semi-autonomous tribal agencies with the rest of the country. Moreover, unilateral U.S. drone strikes have led to hundreds of reprisal attacks by Taliban militants on civilian and sensitive government targets across Pakistan, with significant human costs. In fact, a host of mainstream political parties in Pakistan have made the policy of splitting from the U.S. war in Afghanistan their centerpiece election promise for elections in March 2013. These developments signal a shifting attitude in Pakistan as it prepares for the realities of a post-withdrawal Afghanistan where it becomes a dispensable ally for Washington yet again. The end of combat operations in Afghanistan may put bilateral U.S.-Pakistan relations back into the cold: Washington is expected to quickly roll back aid and foreign military sales to Islamabad, and deepen ties with New Delhi. Deserting the U.S. before it deserts Pakistan provides more policy options in Islamabad for any future government.
Unilateral U.S. drone strikes are however contributing to anti-Americanism on Pakistani street riots following a string of controversies including the Raymond Davis murder case and Salalah attack by U.S. forces which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers yet garnered no apology. Mainstream political forces in Pakistan are now competing to exploit that popular sentiment for political gains as elections approach. For U.S. policymakers to think that the continuation of drone strikes inside Pakistan is not endangering a relationship with Pakistan at a time when ISAF is drawing the curtains on its involvement in Afghanistan would be serious misreading of political developments inside Pakistan. A separation of Pakistan and U.S. ties at this stage of the campaign in Afghanistan possesses strong potential to alter the endgame scenario in Afghanistan at the expense of U.S. interests and complicate its drawdown strategy.
The issue of unilateral U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan is speeding towards an important juncture. Critics contend that a U.S. drone program which keeps no record of civilian casualties or shares surveillance footage collated by its drones prior to kinetic operations for scrutiny may be killing indiscriminately and be in contravention of Washington’s international obligations. Agitated by the precedent being laid, there is growing criticism by civil society within the U.S. as well as the international community towards the CIA-operated drone program, to whom the law of armed conflict in international law does not apply. The CIA is operating the drone program inside a gray area which critics want delegitimized before other nations with or wanting drones move down the same pathway with dangerous implications for human rights and freedoms as well as broader international security.
If Washington adopts an aggressive position in defending its program, it risks a further erosion of its human rights record, heightened anti-Americanism in South Asia and a serious breakdown of relations with Pakistan as international forces drawdown in Afghanistan. Washington may also be held responsible for legitimizing by its actions today repression in the future by nations that may employ drones against political opposition. The U.S. must open its drone program to external scrutiny and put in place independent mechanisms for measuring the ongoing success of such counter-terrorism operations in order to harness the benefits that technological advances in remotely piloted aircraft offer within legal and ethical frameworks. As a first step however Washington must shift its program from the CIA into the military structure to bring it in line with international laws for conflict, and explore possibilities to pursue with much greater restraint a list of high value targets pre-compiled in collaboration with Pakistani authorities or be prepared for an inevitable but imminent backlash carrying a much higher strategic cost.
Sabahat Khan, Senior Analyst, INEGMA