Few political forces have emphasized on what Pakistan should do to stop drone attacks.
The issue of drones has been an on-again off-again topic of discussion in Pakistan ever since the first drone strike hit the tribal belt in 2004. Until 2013, there had been over 369 strikes in Pakistan. The estimated number of suspected terrorists killed in these attacks was somewhere between 1600-2500 while there were over 300 confirmed civilian deaths and several hundred ‘unknown’ deaths, according to data collected by the Washington DCbased New America Foundation.
In a country beset with terrorism, sectarian violence, economic and political instability, the importance given to the ‘drone issue’ by political parties is indeed significant, especially since most people killed in these attacks are confirmed terrorists. The number of civilian casualties in drone attacks is quite low compared with deaths in Karachi in target killings and sectarian violence in a period of two months - not that there is any relativity in deaths, or that it is simply a numbers issue.
The recent ‘dharna’ by the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) against NATO supplies until drone strikes were discontinued has brought the issue to the fore again. Several political parties have voiced their opposition to the strikes and the National Assembly has passed various resolutions - the latest one on December 11, 2013 - affirming unanimous opposition to the strikes and demanding immediate end to the attacks. But while there seems to be an almost across-theboard opposition in principle to drone strikes, several political parties seem to have a different view, though in small print.
The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), in power from 2008 to 2013, for example, only has a notional opposition to drone strikes. So, when a PPP MPA from Bannu, Fakhar Azam Khan Wazir, released advertisements in newspapers supporting the PTI dharna, the party immediately issued a show cause notice to him for causing ‘confusion in the party about its policy line’. The notice, signed by Additional Secretary General Raza Rabbani, stated that ‘the placement of these ads had led to a wholly erroneous impression that the call to block NATO supply routes comes from the party’s leadership and is in accordance with the party policy.’ The PPP maintained that while it opposed drone strikes, stopping NATO supplies was a decision for the federal government alone.
In contrast, the PTI of Imran Khan sees blocking of NATO supplies as a legitimate strategy to end drone attacks. In fact, according to news reports, Imran Khan has even blamed the prevalence of terrorism on drone attacks. The dharna of the PTI and its allied parties continues in small doses but without the official participation of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government.
Religious parties, the Jamaat-eIslami (JI) and the Jamiat-e-Ulema-eIslam Fazlur Rahman (JUI-F), have also unequivocally opposed drone strikes. Maulana Fazlur Rahman has gone so far as to state that ‘anyone killed by the U.S. is a martyr, even if it is a dog.’ These parties have fully supported the sit-in of the PTI and have called for a complete end to drone attacks as well as any contacts with the U.S. administration.
On the government side, there is an agreement on the opposition to drone strikes, but a clear difference can be observed in tone among its members. The prime minister maintains his
condemnation of attacks and recently stated that he condemns ‘these acts from the core of his heart’, but there is a clear difference of emphasis among government ministers.
While the Prime Minister’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, cautiously noted their ‘counterproductive effect and reiterated the call to the U.S. to review its policy which has a negative impact on the government’s efforts to bring peace and stability in Pakistan and the region’, Chaudhry Nisar Ali, the Interior Minister, noted after the Hangu attack, “The United States does not want peace in Pakistan... As the interior minister, I never trusted U.S. assurances as they have been telling me several stories of ‘Alif Laila.’ Now, the time has come that we’ll have to choose between dollars and honour.” Further, both the prime minister and the Information Minister, Pervez Rashid, have publically called the PTI sit-ins counterproductive, maintaining dialogue to be the ‘only solution’. This apparent confusion amidst the ranks of the government has led the PTI to mock it several times.
Why do all major Pakistani political parties agree on their opposition to drone attacks but disagree on a strategy to deal with them?
Firstly, all political parties know that drone attacks do Pakistan’s dirty work to a great extent. The report of the International Crisis Group succinctly described the attitude of Pakistan towards drones. It notes: “Pakistan’s attitude towards drones borders on the schizophrenic. Rather than inherently opposing the strikes, its leadership, in particular its military, seeks greater control over target selection.” Pakistani political parties, especially its military, know that a majority of those killed in drone strikes are the enemies of Pakistan and that their elimination in fact helps Pakistan tackle its terrorism problem.
Secondly, a close look reveals that the PPP and the PML-N primarily oppose the ‘effect’ of drone strikes, and do not oppose their tactical use. The opposition whipped up by some parties and rightwing organizations and the impetus such attacks supposedly give to terrorists, are the effects these parties term as counterproductive. As they have been in government, they know the importance of drone attacks in eliminating Pakistan’s enemies.
For the PTI, opposition to drone attacks is quite simply a tactic to move attention away from its abysmal performance in the only province where it rules. It needs a divergence, and the drone issue offers a very sound deviation strategy - just like the Kashmir issue did in the past. Jingoistic statements by the leaders of the PTI clearly show that sit-ins are merely for political mileage. For religious parties, fomenting anti-American sentiment is always the mainstay of their support and therefore fanning it only improves their influence and hold. In the past too, religious parties successfully used and channelled anti-American sentiment to come into power.
Both the current and previous governments have also voiced their opposition to drone strikes in the UN. As a result, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution on December 18, 2013, in response to the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. The report states: “There is strong evidence to suggest that between June 2004 and June 2008 remotely piloted aircraft strikes in FATA were conducted with the active consent and approval of senior members of the Pakistani military... On 12 April 2012, however, both houses of the parliament unanimously adopted guidelines for revised terms of engagement with the U.S., NATO and ISAF... Since the May 2013 elections, the Special Rapporteur has been informed by the new Administration that it adopts the same position as its predecessor: drone strikes are counterproductive, contrary to international law, a violation of Pakistani sovereignty and territorial integrity, and should cease immediately.”
The Rapporteur, however, identified ‘a number of legal questions on which there is currently no clear international consensus.’ International laws relating to drones are unclear. Similarly, Pakistan’s claim that ‘it successfully coordinated with likeminded states to include references to the use of drones in the resolution,’ is also self-congratulatory as the resolution does not state anything new and was bound to refer to them since the report was mainly about drone strikes. The excitement the resolution generated in Pakistan (mainly because of the Pakistani news media) was also misleading since it used terms which suggested that this resolution was more than the scores of well-meaning, yet non-enforceable, resolutions of the UN General Assembly.
Very few political forces have emphasized on what Pakistan should do to stem drone attacks in the long run. The International Crisis Group report recommended, rightly, that ‘the core of any Pakistani counterterrorism strategy in this area should be to incorporate FATA into the country’s legal and constitutional mainstream. This should be accompanied by a national counterterrorism policy that prioritizes the modernization of a failing criminal justice sector, thus enabling the state to bring violent extremists to justice.’
Unless actual conditions on the ground change for the people of FATA, support for extremist and terrorist groups will not end. Drones will continue to strike and political parties will keep using this issue for political point scoring.