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US drone strikes have long been a sticking point in US-Pakistan relations. To the Obama administration, they are a key tool in the fight against terrorism, evident in the various high-ranking commanders they’ve eliminated from the regional militancy equation. To Islamabad, however, they represent a breach of state sovereignty, and their tendency to kill civilians serves to undermine government writ in Pakistan’s tribal territories.
If drone strikes are the crack running along the edifice of US-Pakistan relations, then US aid is the plaster used to mask it. The Obama administration quietly resumed a $1.6 billion military aid package to Pakistan last month. On hold since the 2011 Osama Bin Laden raid, the resumption suggested that Pakistan’s new Nawaz Sharif administration would defer back to the old dynamic of “US strikes, Pakistan condemns” with regards to the issue of extraterritorial drone strikes.
And it might have done just that if not for a case of poor timing. Last week, after four years of trying, the US managed to kill Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), in a drone attack in North Waziristan. The strike came days after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced that government negotiators were headed to the tribal areas to initiate a peace process; and weeks after Hakimullah himself told the BBC he would be willing to negotiate with Islamabad (albeit pushing an inflexible demand of establishing Sharia law throughout Pakistan).
The Hakimullah strike has plunged Prime Minister Sharif into a trap of his own making. He campaigned heavily on ending US drone strikes during the general election that swept him into power, and though his recent trip to Washington was long on praise for US-Pakistan cooperation and solidarity, he still made it clear to reporters that he had stressed the need for ending drone strikes in his talks with President Obama.
In another case of curious timing, the Sharif visit coincided with a leaked memo being published in the Washington Post. The memo in question outlined tacit cooperation from past Pakistani governments on US drone strikes within Pakistan.
All this serves to increase the potential severity of diplomatic fallout from the Hakimullah strike. Prime Minister Sharif has essentially left himself with no other option than to come down hard on Washington. He has already organized various high-level meetings with his army chief of staff and diplomats, with a stated aim of re-assessing Pakistan’s relationship with the United States. Opposition parties are also fanning the flames. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is calling for another blockade of NATO supply lines into Afghanistan, even threatening to act independently in its capacity as ruling party of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The prospect of another shutdown of supply routes through Pakistan would probably be taken seriously by the Obama administration, as these routes are expected to play an important part in the scaling down of NATO troop levels in Afghanistan over the next year. Prime Minister Sharif has yet to comment one way or another on the PTI plan.
The other casualty of the Hakimullah strike is the nascent peace process, which some would argue was doomed to begin with given the fundamental incompatibility between the TTP’s demands of Sharia law and guarantees within the Pakistani constitution. For one, the government’s impotence as a guarantor of security for a peace process has been laid bare. Whether one believes Prime Minister Sharif’s claims he received a US pledge to halt strikes during peace talks or not, the end result is the same: Washington believes that Pakistan should be fighting, not talking, with militants in its tribal regions.
Officials in Islamabad can thus condemn the fallacy of US foreign policy all they want, but it won’t change the fact that time is now needed for the TTP to come back to the negotiating table, and this intermediate period will likely be marked by a wave of reprisal attacks within Pakistan.
Some media outlets have suggested that the Hakimullah strike could actually end up assisting the peace process, pointing to the inflexibility of Hakimullah’s views and the existence of more amenable personalities waiting in the wings. Khan Said, also known as “Sajna,” is one cited example. He became the group’s second-in-command after Waliur Rehman was killed by a US drone strike in North Waziristan in 2013.
A more likely result in the short term however is that the new leader, whether Khan Said or Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, will defer to the more tried-and-tested method of going on the offensive to consolidate support within the movement. Peace offers, particularly those involving major concessions, generally extend from leaders with the personal authority to silence inevitable dissenters within their organization. Ironically enough given his brutal modus operandi, Hakimullah Mehsud was more of a fit for peace than whoever his successor will be – at least for the time being.
In sum, the assassination of Hakimullah Mehsud has shifted the likelihood of success in TPP-Islamabad peace talks from “not likely” to “impossible” over the short term. It has also put Prime Minister Sharif on the spot, as he now must choose between being a leader who backs up his tough anti-drone strike rhetoric with action, or one whose rote objections ring as hollow as those who he recently replaced.
Whatever form his decision takes, it will definitely be setting the tone for future relations between Washington and Islamabad.
Zachary Fillingham is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com
A MOTHERBOARD PREMIERE: A NEW DOCUMENTARY BY MADIHA TAHIR
The drone war is obscure by design. Operated by armchair pilots from clandestine bases across the American west, the Predators and Reapers fly over Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan’s Tribal Areas at invisible heights, where they are on orders from the CIA to kill “high value” targets with laser-guided “surgical” precision thousands of feet below. But because of where the Hellfire missiles land, and because the program is operated in secret, verifying their precision and their lasting effects isn’t easy.
For years, US officials have downplayed the number of civilian deaths in particular, even as a chorus of independent reports have offered their own grim estimates. The latest, according to new research by the United Nations and Amnesty International: 58 civilians killed in Yemen, and up to nine hundred in Pakistan. In a speech in May, President Obama finally broke his silence on drones, acknowledging that civilians had been killed—he didn’t say how many—and promising more transparency for the program. “Those deaths,” added the President, “will haunt us for as long as we live.”
For journalist Madiha Tahir, the numbers are important, but they’re not the whole story. Her documentary “Wounds of Waziristan,” which premieres above, features interviews with the people who live in the southern part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, bordering Afghanistan, under the eyes of the drones, and in the wake of their destruction. The film switches up the typical calculus that drives the drone debate at home. Tahir, who grew up between Pakistan and the U.S., points out that drone strikes aren’t just about the numbers of casualties, or the kinds of ethical arguments that arise around “just war” concepts like proportionality. The effects of the drone war have as much to do with the way those casualties rip apart communities and haunt the living, in distant places that exist on the fringes of law and order.
“Because drones are at a certain remove, there is a sense of uncertainty, a sense that you can’t control this,” Tahir says, describing the attitude among the people who live in Waziristan. Already haunted by the legacy of British colonialism and the laws it left behind, this part of the Tribal Areas is now ruled with a brutal fist by the Pakistani military and various insurgent groups. But the buzz of the drones, sometimes seven or eight overhead a day, signals another kind of indeterminate power. “Whether its true or not, people feel that with militants there is some degree of control. You can negotiate. There is some cause and effect. But there is no cause and effect with drones. It’s an acute kind of trauma that is not limited to the actual attack.”
For the operators of the drone program, who have launched more than 300 missile attacks in Pakistan since 2008, the semi-governed Tribal Areas are subject to their own kind of war-on-terror calculus. As the New York Times reported last year, the American government has been counting all military-age males in a strike zone as “militants,” which leads to skewed figures about who exactly has been killed. The Obama administration has executed “signature strikes,” drone attacks based on a so-called “pattern of life” analysis in which simply suspicious behavior is enough to qualify for an attack. And in a so-called “double tap” maneuver, a second attack follows an initial strike, killing those who have come to recover bodies from the scene.
“When an attack happens, the media claims to know how many militants were killed,” says Noor Behram, a journalist in the Tribal Areas who has been photographing the casualties of drone strikes for years. “Actually, you only find body parts on the scene, so people can’t tell how many have died.”
In one interview, Tahir speaks with a man from South Waziristan named Karim Khan, whose brother and son were killed in a drone strike. “What is the definition of terrorism?” he asks her, and she returns the question to him. His tired eyes light up.
“I think there is no bigger terrorist than Obama or Bush,” he says. “Those who have weaponry like drones, who drop bombs on us while we are in our own homes, there are no greater terrorists than them.”
Despite the secrecy, independent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, combined with a set of leaked cables detailing secret dealings between Islamabad and Washington and published in the Washington Post, have shed new light on the still-secret program. On October 29, a family injured in a strike that Amnesty International mentioned in its report is scheduled to testify before Congress (though their lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, who also appears in the film, has been denied a visa.)
In a separate report last week to the UN, which is due to be discussed before the General Assembly in New York on Friday, the special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson called for the US to declassify the program, which he said may be in violation of international laws—a claim that many officials and rights groups have echoed.
“By hiding behind arguments of secrecy and exploiting the difficulty in confirming details of specific strikes due to the lawlessness, remoteness and insecurity of Pakistan’s Tribal Areas,” Emmerson writes, “the USA is contributing to the litany of violations and abuses endured by a population that has been both neglected and assaulted by their own state and victimized by al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and other armed groups.”
Reports like these are an important start to making the drone debate more public, Tahir says, and pressuring the administration to change course. But there are deeper wounds to consider too, ones that are harder to calculate. “There need to be ways we can talk about drones beyond the legal discourse,” she says. “What are the ways we can think about what it means to experience life under drones, and about exactly what it means to be, as the President said, ‘haunted’ by the loss of life.”
For more, see the film’s website, Madiha’s website, and find her on Twitter.
- Amnesty: US must investigate alleged civilian drone casualties in Pakistan, compensate victims (foxnews.com)
- No explicit, implicit consent for drone strikes: Pakistan (rediff.com)
- Rights groups probe US drone strikes (bbc.co.uk)
- Life Under Drones in Pakistan (counterpunch.org)
- Six killed in US drone strike in North Waziristan (dawn.com)
- Pakistan lodges protest, stresses ‘immediate end to drone strikes’ (beta.dawn.com)
- Pakistan lodges protest against US drone strike on Miranshah (thenewstribe.com)
- Angry Pakistan summons envoy after US drone strike kills nine – Reuters (reuters.com)
- Pakistan’s Sharif declares end to secret approval of drone strikes (rinf.com)