The hoary cliché, ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re out to get you,’ used by people to justify their outsized sense of self-importance and to further their delusions may just be applicable to Pakistan. We have often thought we loomed larger in other countries’ minds than we actually do. Now, we have reason to continue believing that. US President Barack Obama, trying to give legal cover to his dubious tactics in the ‘war on terror’, has recently been working in secret to codify what the president can and cannot do in catching and killing terrorists. These rules, according to an administration leak published in The Washington Post, came with one caveat: they do not apply to CIA operations in Pakistan.
Think for a minute about how staggering this is. The US is essentially saying that it cannot come up with a single justification for the legality of drone strikes in Pakistan. When taken to court over the issue, the Obama Administration argues that the courts cannot rule on the matter since national security binds them from even acknowledging the existence of these operations.
Now, in a subversion of legal and political norms, the president is post-facto legalising his actions but is doing so in secret and even within this extremely broad framework, he cannot provide legal cover to drone strikes in Pakistan and is instead arguing that they will continue just because he wants them to. This would be like me deciding to lose weight by cutting out all chocolate from my diet and then deciding that I can eat all the Maltesers my heart desires. The exception destroys the rule.
Those few Pakistanis who support drone attacks in the tribal areas will argue that there is no reason for us to worry about US legalese; that drones are the best way to kill the terrorists that we refuse to fight ourselves. For one, this argument does a great disservice to our military, which has actually committed to the fight against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, no matter what objections we may have to its tactics. Then, there is the fact that those who make this argument end up sounding a lot like those who say our government is so corrupt that we need a bunch of technocrats/military strongmen to come and clean up the mess. Whatever short-term progress is made through such stopgap measures is invariably undone in the long term. The same principle applies to drones. The death of a few hundred militants in drone strikes won’t compensate for the anger caused by the strikes themselves, the blatant lawlessness that accompanies them will become the new normal and the US will be even less concerned about civilian casualties in the future.
Recall that right now, the US classifies any man above the age of 18 who is killed in a drone strike as a militant, unless proven otherwise. These are the consequences of operating in secret, without any oversight and accountability. Those you murder become guilty until proven innocent.
It should be pointed out that the US, as the driver of the drone policy, is the most culpable in this matter but the Pakistani state is a front seat passenger which deserves some of the blame. Drones get support because they represent an easy way out. You get to kill a lot of people, many of them militants, without being shot at in return and you get to do it in secrecy without having to be answerable to anyone.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2013.