A confusing policy on drone attacks – by Nasim Zehra

Wednesday, November 26, 2008 (The News)

The gap is too obvious between what Pakistani government representatives state and what appears to be the reality. For example, the recent statements by the president and prime minister hoping that the Obama administration will end drone attacks on Pakistan’s territory are in direct contrast with reliable reports that come in from Washington. According to a report the Wall Street Journal on Nov 18, “the US Army is preparing to deploy a network of drones and other surveillance aircraft to Afghanistan in an expanding effort to defeat the resurgent Taliban and reverse a downward spiral in the country.”

The report (titled “US to expand drone use, other surveillance in Afghanistan”), further states that “the effort, known as Task Force ODIN-A, is set to begin early next year and will coincide with the planned deployments of thousands of American troop reinforcements to Afghanistan.”

Quoting “senior US military officials” and “official sources,” the report elaborates that drones and manned surveillance aircraft “will be deployed to identify insurgent targets inside Afghanistan, including on the Afghan side of the border with Pakistan. The military will use the information to launch airstrikes and ground attacks on militants.” Hence, drone attacks, for now according to US plans, are here to stay.

Similarly, on the one hand the president and prime minister both complain that drone attacks are responsible for the deteriorating security situation within Pakistan and yet there are no signs of any strain in Pakistan-US relations on any front. The official press note stated after a recent meeting the president and the prime minister that the two men agreed that the US drone attacks have been undermining Pakistan’s efforts to fight terrorism within Pakistan and have also increased the number of suicide bombings within Pakistan. But US and NATO commanders claim that their relations with their Pakistani counterparts have never been better.

Clearly, all is not known to the people of Pakistan on the understanding that exists between the US administration and the Pakistani government on the drone attacks. Based on reliable information available in the public sphere, Pakistani officials issue anti-drone statements but such statements often lack any substantive and sober reference to Washington’s violation of international law and Pakistan’s sovereignty in these attacks. These weak statements are also never backed by either the threat of action or in fact the taking of any real action to deter Washington from launching further drone attacks.

The civilian government has raised its mildly stated objection to the drone attacks. In his pre-Sharm el Shiekh meeting with the US president the Pakistani prime minister has flagged the issue of drone attacks with the US ambassador in Pakistan. Ambassador Anne Patterson was as candid about the US policy of pursuing militants inside Pakistan as was General Mullen during his September visit to Pakistan. Both US officials were unable to guarantee that there would be no repeats of either the drone attacks or, even worse, the first-ever ground attack on Pakistani territory on Sept from Pakistan’s western borders by a foreign force.

The public statements following meetings between the US president and the Pakistani president and prime minister have never once included a clear-cut articulation by Pakistani officials that US drone attacks are unacceptable because they undermine Pakistan’s sovereignty.

This is anything but plausible deniability. This flimsy policy, where words and actions do not match, has created endless public cynicism vis-a-vis the government. There are few Pakistanis who believe that the government is serious about wanting the US to stop the drone attacks. Some believe the understanding of the Musharraf days, where the US would inform the Pakistanis just minutes before launching drone attacks, was a slippery slope policy. In fact while Gen Musharraf was still in power, the US conducted two attacks without pre-warning and seeking permission from the Pakistani government.

With the civilian government in power, the US has continued on the same track. Some in Pakistan believe that the civilian government, with the army’s support, has given US the clearance to carry out these attacks. Others believe the army is not pleased with this policy of the US conducting drone attacks without Pakistan’s permission. The divide in public opinion perhaps is based on logical inferences, conjecture and people’s own political preferences. It cannot be different. Pakistan’s position on the drone factor is a flimsy and confused position drained of credibility.

Military cooperation between Pakistan and the US seems to be at an all-time high. This, too, at an operational level covering Afghanistan and Pakistan’s own tribal areas. The institutional cooperation on multiple fronts also continues. So, what is the cost to the US of violating the sovereignty of Pakistan and of killing its innocent citizens, even if as “collateral damage?” None at all.

It does not earn the government plausible deniability, nor does it earn people’s confidence, nor even US trust. The loss of innocent Pakistani lives is a major issue for which the government of Pakistan seems unable to take an action, other than calling in the US ambassador to complain occasionally or to issue rhetorical statements. The respect and protection of the life and dignity is a primary constitutional responsibility of the state and the government.

Instead, on the drone issue the government seems to be a loser on many fronts. The government of Pakistan appears to hunt with the hound and run with the hare. It doesn’t walk the talk. It protests so loudly and acts so meekly. Is it because there is a plan whereby Pakistan believes that the drone attacks are helping Pakistan to get Al Qaeda “high value” targets who are also harming Pakistan? This too is unclear. One, because the claim of the eight high-value targets from the Al Qaeda leaders having been killed is still doubtful. Secondly, because the killing of innocent Pakistanis by US drone attacks is adding to radicalism in Pakistan.

The government of Pakistan, as well as the army leadership, has to be clear on what is at stake. This incoherent and questionable policy on the drone attacks is also putting Pakistan’s future security at stake. If the US has arrogated to itself the right to hit at Pakistan’s territory based on its own intelligence and without any UN mandate, which other country would follow suit tomorrow?

Pakistan needs a coherent policy on the drones. But that must include the US as partners. Such a possibility will come only when the US recognises that without the trust factor between Pakistan and the US no counter-insurgency efforts is likely to succeed. For Pakistan a made-in-Pakistan policy factoring in external concerns is crucial. But the onus of that is on Pakistan, not the US. (The News)

The writer is an Islamabad-based security analyst. Email: nasimzehra@hotmail.com