One of the greatest US foreign policy successes since the 9/11 attacks has been to redefine terrorism as the use of violence for political aims, but only when wielded by Muslims. No matter how disparate the groups and how different their goals, all acts of violence committed by Muslims are grouped under one heading.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in the debate over drones, particularly after the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) shooting of 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai. Both sides have been equally guilty of lazy thinking. In one corner, you have those who claim that were the US not carrying out drone strikes in the tribal areas, the TTP would not have attacked this minor girl, or indeed be indulging in much violence at all. On the other hand, some are now seeing vindication for drone attacks, claiming that the monsters who were responsible for this dastardly deed deserve nothing better than to be shot dead by the robots in the sky.
Neither side acknowledges one obvious truth: drone attacks do not usually target those who are doing the killing in Pakistan. Much of the terrorist violence in the country is the handiwork of the TTP, a coalition of various militant groups that operate inside Pakistan, while drone attacks chiefly target militant groups that have found refuge in the tribal agencies but are mainly interested in carrying out attacks in Afghanistan. Linking the use of drones on the latter with the violence of the former makes about as much sense as blaming Protestants for the sins of Catholicism. They may have similar ideologies rooted in the same religion but they have goals and aspirations which rarely overlap.
The governments and militaries of the US and Pakistan obviously recognise this, even if their public statements on the matter are misleading. In pursuing its own interests, the US uses its drone technology to target those it sees as a threat to its troops and interests in Afghanistan. That same instinct of self-preservation leads the US to constantly pressure Pakistan to carry out a military operation in North Waziristan against the Haqqani network, which has attacked targets only in Afghanistan. We have obviously refused to do so since the Haqqani network poses no immediate threat to Pakistan. Where the US has tried to win the propaganda war is by using attacks by the TTP to publicly urge us to carry out a military operation in North Waziristan even though the type of action they would have us undertake would be centred against the Haqqanis, not the TTP.
Different arguments could be made to make the case for military operations against the Haqqani network. One would be based on morality, saying that since the terrorist outfit has been given sanctuary in Pakistan, likely with the collusion of the military, we have a duty to take action against it. The other argument would be practical and far-sighted. At some point, these groups are going to turn their bombs and guns against us and it is better to strike first than wait for the inevitable. Neither of these cases is being made. Instead, we are being fed moralistic arguments about the violence the Taliban is fostering in our country, without a vital distinction being made between different militant groups.
The only distinction our military has drawn is that of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban. This may be about as unhelpful a designation as one could get. ‘Good’ Taliban are described as those attacking Afghanistan, while the baddies are those who go after us. Instead of moralistically differentiating between them, it would be far more persuasive to differentiate on the basis of practicality.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 26th, 2012.