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A Taliban demand,a Pakistani consensus

By vocally condemning drones,Pakistan’s army and political parties have chosen populism over realism

Written by Khaled Ahmed | Published: June 14, 2013 12:46 am

By vocally condemning drones,Pakistan’s army and political parties have chosen populism over realism

There is a political consensus in Pakistan against the American strategy of using unmanned drone aircraft against targets inside the country’s territory. In the past,an all-party gathering has condemned the drone attacks and parliament too has passed a consensual resolution against them. The Pakistan army,pursuing a populist course in the post-Musharraf era,has positioned itself against the drones. The media hype against the drones has heightened the sense of sovereignty of a state that has otherwise been rendered dysfunctional by the men targeted by drones.

No democratic state can avoid populism even when populism challenges its capacity to act autonomously. It is a measure of new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s defiance of populism that in his first speech in parliament after being sworn in,he has not denounced the drones or asserted state sovereignty over the Iranian gas pipeline opposed by the US. A grand congregation of clerics in Islamabad has called upon him to stop the US drone attacks and get out of the “war against terrorism” imposed by the US on an unwilling Pakistan. Sharif’s ministers,bowing to political wisdom,have condemned the drones too.

The new parliament will be shrill on the drones soon enough,led by Imran Khan and his party who,as a preliminary measure to cut the ground from under the feet of the ruling Muslim League,will present Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to the electorate as the more attractive alternative. In the past,the ruling PPP (at the centre) and ANP (in the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) knew that the drones actually did the job that the state was unable to do,but fell back on the safer policy of condemning them.

The US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan more or less favour the drone policy because it helps them withdraw post-haste from the battlefield under pressure from their own domestic “come home” populism that doesn’t care any more about the menace of global terrorism. There is however growing criticism of the drones from inside the US because of the collateral damage they cause in the shape of innocent casualties. President Obama has taken care of that by promising that he will subject the drones operations to stricter scrutiny.

Nawaz Sharif was well-advised not to pledge “going to court” against America on the drones in his speech because their “attacks violated Pakistan’s sovereignty without a declaration of war”. The clerical consensus,close to the Taliban despite the fact that some of their leaders have been murdered by them,wants Sharif to kick the American ambassador out of Pakistan,and after which to also consider the possibility of breaking off relations with Washington. Lawyers make fine points about how America could be challenged under international law,but don’t say which forum apart from the UN Security Council can hear a case brought by one of the world’s most isolated states.

Those who get targeted by the drones are mostly terrorists with little or no collateral damage: the Taliban,Punjabi Taliban,the Haqqani group,al-Qaeda Arabs and (if and when the Pakistan army wants) the warlords of Khyber and other tribal agencies. Nek Muhammad,Baitullah Mehsud,Qari Hussain Mehsud,Ilyas Kashmiri,etc,should have been killed by Pakistan but were disposed of by the drones. (Mullah Nazir,favoured by Pakistan,was killed by a drone because he raided inside Afghanistan.)

Hakimullah Mehsud has a base in Orakzai while hiding in North Waziristan; and Faqir Mohammed is based in Bajaur. Two bases operated by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have been hit in South Waziristan. The Pakistan army considers the Haqqanis,Gul Bahadur,and Hekmatyar to be “good Taliban” as they do not carry out attacks against the Pakistani state. All these Taliban factions shelter al-Qaeda and various other terror groups including those who do kill Pakistanis too. There is a lot of money in it apart from Islamic passion.

Some Pakistani army officers have expressed a different view of drones till they learned to keep quiet. Last year,at least two voices were still being heard. Major General Ghayyur Mehmud,GOC 7th Div North Waziristan,told journalists that “a majority of those killed by drone strikes are hardcore Taliban or al-Qaeda elements,especially foreigners,while civilian casualties are few; and that by scaring local populations and compelling displacement through migration,drone attacks create social and political blowbacks for law enforcement agencies.”

Quoted in Urdu daily Mashriq (April 22,2012),General Khalid Rabbani of 11 Corps on the Afghan-Pakistan border stated that “a victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan will be dangerous for Pakistan because it will strengthen the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and inflict more terrorism on Pakistani people. He also said that if the drones did not involve civilian casualties they could be of help in putting an end to terrorism”. Both did not protest the sovereignty of the state of Pakistan. (According to WikiLeaks,a cable from US Ambassador Anne Patterson in Islamabad in 2008 revealed that Prime Minister Gilani was of the same opinion as President Zardari who didn’t mind the collateral damage caused by the drones.)

In 2008,when the attacks picked up,the drones killed 286 terrorists — specifically al-Qaeda Arabs — while killing 31 non-terrorists. In 2009,there were 463 killed with 43 as collateral damage. In 2010,the ratio was 801:14; in 2011,408:30; and in 2012,97:0.

The Pakistan army says the US should hand over the drones to Pakistan which will then undertake the extermination of the terrorists more effectively,that is,without collateral damage. The fact is that air attacks conducted by Pakistan in Orakzai,South Waziristan and other tribal agencies,have caused collateral damage which is actually bigger. But for America,the more insuperable problem is trusting Pakistan with the drones after accusing its intelligence agencies of actually using the Taliban to kill ISAF troops and Afghans inside Afghanistan. Ex-chief of the US armed forces,Admiral Mike Mullen,had said the “Haqqani group in North Waziristan is virtually an extension of the ISI”.

The plaint relating to violation of territorial sovereignty is developing into some kind of comic opera in the region. Pakistan accuses the US of violating it through drone attacks,and accuses India of doing the same thing through infiltration of paid militants in Balochistan. The US of course accuses Pakistan of getting its non-state actors to attack across the Durand Line. Uzbekistan and Russia are more reticent in expressing their worries about the Uzbeks and Chechens trained on Pakistani territory before they attack back home. In the Pak-Chinese joint statement after the recent visit to Islamabad by Premier Li Keqiang,both sides pledged to do something about the Uighur terrorists being trained in Pakistan for attacks in Xinjiang.

India has been accusing Pakistan of sending non-state actors into Kashmir — which is old hat for the world — but what is universally believed are the attacks carried out in the past by Pakistani non-state actors in New Delhi and Mumbai. The latest charge is that Pakistan is once again fishing in the troubled waters of Indian Punjab. (The day the charge was made,“Pakistani Sikhs” were protesting against India in front of the Lahore Press Club!)

Former army chief General Musharraf,now facing a possible treason trial,has confessed that he had allowed the use of drones by America “now and then”. But WikiLeaks,in 2011,unveiled the post-Musharraf attitude of the army: “In a meeting on January 22,2008 with US CENTCOM Commander Admiral William J. Fallon,Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani requested the Americans to provide ‘continuous Predator coverage of the conflict area in South Waziristan where the army was conducting operations against militants’.” The request was contained in a secret cable sent by then US Ambassador Anne Patterson on February 11,2008.

The Taliban terrorists want the drones stopped. And the consensus in Pakistan is right behind them.

The writer is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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