Game of drones -

Game of drones

The debate over U.S. strikes is a necessary one— but in Pakistan, the conversation is mired in divisions and half-truths


Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi / Reuters

Finally some good news out of Pakistan: one of its most feared and brutal militant leaders is dead. Hakimullah Mehsud, the head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was killed on Nov. 1 after a U.S. drone targeted his home in North Waziristan, the most volatile region in the Pakistani Tribal Areas. The hit was years in the making and comes at a time when the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is under attack amidst a growing flurry of criticism over its drone program.

Drones have certainly perpetrated havoc in the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians from Pakistan to Yemen. The technological know-how required to build them is relatively basic, making drones the nightmare machines of security experts, who foresee a world where every government, every terrorist and revolutionary, will someday have a drone at their disposal.

In Pakistan particularly, where drones are characterized as the most blatant example of American brutality, you might be inclined to believe the entire country is up in arms against them. But in a complex nation like Pakistan, there is more to the story than meets the eye.

Mehsud’s death, for example, is being welcomed by many quarters of Pakistani society, despite the manner in which it happened. Local press reports, while condemning drones in general, have pointed out the collective sigh of relief sweeping through the country. “He was the worst of all,” one security official was quoted as saying in the widely read Dawn newspaper. “He was responsible for the bloodshed and death of thousands of Pakistanis. For us, it’s good riddance.”

That U.S. drones were responsible for purging Pakistan of this menace has remained a relatively quiet footnote to the broader implications of Mehsud’s death and points to the complexity of the drone issue in a country already riven by numerous divides.

Mehsud is not the first TTP commander to fall victim to drones. His predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was also killed in a drone strike, as were dozens of other senior militant commanders, according to U.S. military accounts. Nonetheless, much of the international community’s criticism of drones has remained focused on civilian casualties.

An Amnesty International report, published on Oct. 22, claims that drone strikes have knowingly targeted civilians, violated national sovereignty, and could ultimately constitute war crimes. Human rights activists have pushed for U.S. accountability for civilian deaths, which they claim occur much more frequently than the Obama administration is admitting. And yet, there is little hard evidence supporting that claim.

“The Amnesty report is unconvincing,” says Reza Jan, an analyst and the Pakistan team lead for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “It’s extremely difficult to get reliable information on the extent of civilian casualties in a place like the Tribal Areas of Pakistan. What’s proven is that drone strikes are extremely accurate. And claims of sovereignty violations make little sense when the host government is complicit in drone operations.”

In fact, successive Pakistani governments have quietly supported U.S. drone strikes, relying on a strategy of plausible denial. This is one of Pakistan’s worst-kept secrets: both the government and the armed forces have quietly co-operated with the American drone program while publicly denouncing it. Until December 2011, the CIA launched its drones from Shamsi Airbase in Pakistan’s southwestern desert. That base was closed in the diplomatic row caused by a U.S.-led NATO attack on two Pakistani military outposts on the Afghan border that killed 24 soldiers in November 2011. More recently, a Washington Post article revealed top-secret memos that clearly show the Pakistani government was not only kept apprised of the drone program but in at least one case they picked the target.

Yet despite the evidence, most Pakistanis continue to cry foul. Ironically, much of the condemnation comes from areas in Pakistan far removed from the attacks themselves.

“The further people are from the Tribal Areas in which the drones operate, the greater the outrage they provoke,” writes Irfan Husain, a Pakistani journalist and former diplomat, in his book Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West. “Those living in the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, where drones have caused the most casualties, welcome these attacks. According to them, this is the most effective means of ridding them of the unwelcome presence of the Taliban and other militant groups.”

So why the mixed messages? Those bearing the brunt of Pakistan’s war against militancy live in the hornets’ nest. The Pakistani security forces’ presence in the tribal areas is minimal, leaving civilians exposed to reprisal attacks if they show any support for the U.S. And much of that support comes from the minority Shia population, an estimated 50 million scattered around Pakistan, which has been subjected to a barrage of attacks by Sunni extremists. Thousands have lost their lives in bomb blasts and assassinations at the hands of groups like the TTP and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Hakimullah Mehsud himself was reported to be a fervent supporter of attacks on the Shia, whom he considered to be heretics. From their perspective, faced with a government unable—or unwilling—to confront religious extremism, drones are saviours.

“I hope they continue forever,” says Muhammad Ali, a trustee at the Markazi Isna Trust, a Shia organization in Islamabad. “Hakimullah Mehsud is dead. There will be celebrations in Shia homes everywhere in Pakistan. And the drones did this for us. They are targeting the groups that target us. We all support them.”

For the Shia, particularly those living in the Tribal Areas, the buzzing of drones is the sound of salvation. Most who spoke to Maclean’s did so on condition of anonymity, fearing their pro-American stance would make them targets for Sunni extremists. Nonetheless, many said they do not necessarily support U.S. foreign policy per se, but rather in the absence of anyone else to defend them, they are willing to take whatever help they can get.

“I understand the fear our Sunni brothers and sisters are living under in the Tribal Areas,” says one tribal elder in Parachinar, the capital of the Kurram tribal agency where half the population is Shia. “I understand their women and children are being killed by drones. But we are living in fear everywhere in Pakistan. Our people are dying in much greater numbers at the hands of these terrorists.”

The numbers, as difficult as they are to verify, bear out his argument. In 2012, nine Pakistani civilians were killed by drones, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, one of the world’s most trusted sources of casualty counts from drone strikes. During the same year, Sunni militants killed 396 Shia civilians across Pakistan, based on the South Asia Terrorism Portal’s numbers.

But in much of Pakistan and around the world, the perception that drones are slaughtering civilians and violating Pakistan’s sovereignty remains a persistent threat to the U.S. Much of the debate over the future of drones, while necessary, has remained mired in half-truths. The one fact amid all the confusion is this: The drone program is creating more enemies for America than it is eliminating. Getting rid of one hated militant, or even hundreds for that matter, will likely do little to change that.

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