The Drones Dilemma
In addition to causing great losses to the people of Pakistan’s northern areas, drone attacks have polarized and fragmented tribal society.
The cataclysmic attacks of September 2001 on New York’s World Trade Center brought about a fundamental change in attitudes and a transformation of political narratives. To what extent were the new doctrines – such as either you are with us or against us – orchestrated to accomplish pre-designed goals would be a topic for debate for a long time to come. But one thing is undisputable: the identity of the attackers – their training in the U.S. on a crash-program basis, their ability to go past the controls loaded with the needed equipment, their boarding four different aircraft at the same time and their being able to take over control so swiftly and make all the required mechanical adjustments for speed, altitude, angle, direction, etc. and strike the Twin Towers with such precision – would remain a mystery.
Such was the level of panic and fear that on the evening of the day the attacks took place, the U.S. administration identified the culprits and named Osama bin Laden the principal sponsor of the group that took part in the attacks. No time was lost in conveying to Pakistan some conditions which had to be complied with. The drones came when Pakistan began to battle an insurgency in its tribal areas which was the direct outcome of Gen. Musharraf’s decision to send the military deep into those areas to ‘block’ the entry of the Taliban into Pakistan and also to demonstrate to the U.S. that Pakistan was ‘sincerely’ executing a policy that aimed to protect U.S. interests in the area – albeit at an enormous cost to its own stability.
There were reports of some prominent pro-Taliban activists pouring into the tribal areas who had the potential of causing harm to the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan. These militants had to be taken out. Rather than relying on Pakistan to eliminate the militants, the Americans wanted to hit them with precision drones operated from U.S. bases. Whether there was any formal agreement (of which there is no evidence) or a tacit understanding between the military ruler and the Pentagon is not clear. The attacks began in 2004 and have continued well into 2014.
It was June 2004 – exactly ten years ago – when Nek Mohammad, a tribal militant of South Waziristan was speaking to a reporter through a satellite phone from inside his mud compound. He heard the noise of the metallic bird hovering above him. A few hours later, the missile fired by the drone struck and tore through the compound, killing Mohammad and several others. A Pakistani military spokesman immediately ‘accepted’ responsibility – and that was to be the norm for a long time: accept responsibility so that public anger against the U.S. does not mount!
Slowly and gradually, drones became a permanent feature of U.S. policy in this part of the world. The strikes also became a part of the Pakistani consciousness and acceptability followed.
Drone strikes into another country are clearly a violation of international law and inconsistent with the UN Charter. From time to time, voices have been raised against the brutality and illegality of drone strikes. The U.S. justifies the policy, claiming that it takes out ‘enemy combatants’ with no loss of lives to its troops. Because detentions and outsourcing of interrogation brought a bad name to the U.S., there was a policy shift which envisaged the elimination of suspects. Thus the role of the CIA changed from being an espionage network to a paramilitary organization that operates to eliminate potential opponents and hostile individuals or groups. Many Third World countries would emulate this example for years to come.
Over the past ten years, drones have been used in Pakistan’s tribal areas to kill suspected militants. The attacks reached their peak in 200708 and then followed a downward trajectory. During the hundreds of attacks carried out, about 80 prominent tribal and foreign militants have been killed along with more than 400 of their followers. That is one side of the picture. More than 3000 civilians have also been killed and hundreds seriously wounded while many were disabled for life. The civilian toll includes women and children which comprises school-going boys and girls as well as aged men and women. The attacks have also decimated houses, markets, school buildings and other