US President Barack Obama’s admission that he has authorised drone attacks in Pakistan came at an unlikely venue — an online chat the president was conducting on Google Plus. Thus, the American stance on drones in Pakistan has been a cloying refusal to admit they know anything about the attack. This is because the US has not declared war on Pakistan and so the use of Predator drones is, at best, of dubious legality. Now that Obama finally appears willing to discuss the drones programme, there are plenty of questions he needs to answer. The most important is, whether the drone attacks are carried out with Pakistan’s permission. We found out through WikiLeaks that in the past, Pakistan had given its assent, yet it still accuses the US of violating its sovereignty with the drone attacks. Both sides have said different things in public and private on this issue and now need to reconcile and explain these contradictions.
Another consequence of the official US silence on drone attacks in Fata has been a lack of reliable investigations. There is certainly some truth to their efficacy, as dozens of militant leaders have been eliminated by drones. But the US needs to acknowledge the issue of civilian casualties. It is hard to dismiss as collateral damage all the innocent lives lost due to drone attacks because it is these deaths that have made the drone programme so unpopular and may actually have ended up helping the militants recruit among locals in Fata. At a time when indigenous efforts are sorely needed to root out militants, the use of drones are counterproductive, if preferable to US soldiers on the ground. The unfortunate fact is that Obama’s one-sentence acknowledgment is likely the most transparency we’re going to get on the drones issue. In any case, it would be far better if the Pakistani military developed the capability to target the terrorists and militants that the US president claimed the drones are able to do far more effectively. Were that the case, perhaps we wouldn’t have to face this controversial issue at all.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 3rd, 2012.