In his speech at the UN General Assembly, Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari described his country’s ‘epic struggle against terrorism’ and lamented how ‘drone strikes and civilian casualties add to the complexities of our battle to win hearts and minds through this epic struggle.’ In reality, what is epic is the utter failure of the Pakistani government to not only protect its citizens from terrorist attacks in which 30,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives, but also from the terror wrought by U.S. predator hellfire missiles that just like terrorists can strike anywhere, at any time. The fact that these do not target civilians as such, is a distinction irrelevant to parents who have lost their children (176 have so far died) to drone strikes in Pakistan.
Rather than craft a national security strategy that addresses the proximate and structural causes of militancy in Pakistan, the country’s civilian and military leadership has instead relied on short-term tactics that undermine the rule of law and make a mockery of due process. Among these is the use of CIA-directed drones to kill ‘militants’ in Pakistan’s tribal belt—a policy that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Pakistani civilians over the past eight years as documented in a new report by Stanford and New York universities.
Time and again, Pakistan’s civilian government has condemned the use of drone strikes on Pakistani territory. And yet, wikileaks cables reveal that while it protests ‘violations of sovereignty’ publicly, privately the government endorses them. Thus, multiple times a month, the Pakistani government violates its own constitution, including “Article 9 (which) guarantees all citizens the fundamental right to “security of person” (and) Article 4 (which) provides that “no action detrimental to the life, liberty, body, reputation or property of any person shall be taken except in accordance with law””
There also appears to be ‘tacit consent’ among Pakistan’s military leadership. According to a Wall Street Journal article, every month, in response to a fax sent by the CIA which identifies broad areas of potential drone activity, Pakistan’s military clears airspace for the U.S. to conduct drone strikes. In addition, the fact that the Pakistani Air Force has made no attempt to shoot down these drones—they are relatively easy to target since they fly at low altitudes and speeds—is also evidence of the military’s cooperation and consent.
Just as the Pakistani government refuses to accept responsibility for allowing U.S. drone strikes on its territory, the American government has misled its population about the civilian cost of its drone program and the legal framework within which it operates.
For instance, there is growing acceptance among U.S. government officials that killing ‘suspected militants’ is justified—to them it is irrelevant that killing people before they have been declared terrorists by courts of law amounts to assassination and murder—a practice the U.S. government outlawed in 1976.
In January, President Obama (who has ‘carried out six times more strikes during his first term than Bush did during his entire eight years in office’) acknowledged the existence of the drone program for the first time. He insisted that drone strikes have not ‘caused a huge number of civilian casualties’ and that ‘for the most part they have been very precise precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates’. There was no mention of the thousands of innocent civilians who have been killed (between 474-881) and injured (1228-1362) or the immense trauma and stress caused to those who live under the constant threat of missiles.
As for ‘Al-Qaeda and its affiliates’, John Feffer writes about how they are identified and targeted:
“There are two categories of drone strikes. The first, dubbed the personality strike, goes after a known bad guy. The second, the signature strike, targets unidentified individuals and groups according to their pattern of behavior. Neither type qualifies as “surgical.” In the first case, U.S. drones killed Zabet Amanullah on the presumption that he was a top Taliban commander when in fact he was a human rights advocate”
(It also does not help that it is U.S. government policy to refer to any male killed in drone attacks as a ‘militant’ and the media reports these incidents in a similar manner without further investigation or elaboration.)
The Stanford/NYU report documents how people in the tribal areas have altered their patterns of behavior in order to avoid being incinerated by missiles—for instance, they avoid participating in gatherings for jirgas, burials, and other communal practices and some people have stopped sending their children to school.
Proponents of drones maintain they have successfully targeted Al-Qaida and Taliban leaders. While this is true, it is almost beside the point—it disregards the innocent lives lost in pursuit of actual militants. In addition, according to the Stanford/NYU report, only 2% of those killed by drones can be considered ‘high-value targets’. Similarly, to those who argue drones are better than military operations that cause widespread destruction, the answer is neither is a good option—a strengthened law-enforcement infrastructure to combat militancy is what is required in Pakistan and that is where the two governments should spend the bulk of their resources for combating militancy.
For now, however, it appears most of the American population has bought into President Obama’s rhetoric on drone strikes—a Washington Post-ABC poll conducted in February 2012 showed that 83% of Americans approved of Obama’s drone policies. However, it is hoped that as more and more people speak out against the human cost of drone warfare, there will be some shift in public opinion and hence policy. There are some encouraging signs.
As the administration’s drone policies have come under greater scrutiny, there is increasing levels of discomfort within the Obama administration regarding questions of legality. There are questions of what constitutes Pakistan’s ‘consent’, whether the War Powers resolution extended by Congress in the wake of September 11th can fully justify the use of drones in Pakistan given that war has not been declared against it, etc. For now, however, the administration is trying to legitimize its policy by developing an appropriate legal framework, not change it. This will occur only when enough voices are raised in Pakistan and the United States against the illegality and immorality of drone warfare.
On October 7, an international group (including Americans) of courageous journalists, human rights organizations and activists will join their Pakistani counterparts and march towards Waziristan to peacefully protest against the terror unleashed by drones. It is hoped that as alliances between enlightened Americans and Pakistanis grow, they will hold their respective governments to account and urge them to combat militancy by strengthening the rule of law and not by undermining it.