The case against drone attacks

The saddest development of the drone wars is how fragmented we have become over the issue.

Asad Rahim Khan March 06, 2012

It’s hard to find a greater symbol of cruelty than the Khmer Rouge. A communist outfit led by Saloth Sar, later known as Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge dreamt of transforming Cambodia into an agrarian paradise. After seizing power in 1975, the party became a frenzied killing machine. Entire cities were evacuated and the displaced made to labour in the countryside. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, civil servants, intellectuals and minorities were killed openly; some by pickaxes, to save on bullets.

But there was a Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge. With war raging in neighbouring Vietnam, the US carpet-bombed Cambodia throughout the early 1970s. Then, as now, the target of the bombing campaigns was an insurgency that fed the war next door and fought to overthrow the state. Then, as now, the US had the support of the government in return for aid and self-preservation. And, as several western analysts now admit, there was a strong correlation between villages bombed and the rise in support for the Maoists in those villages. Cambodia would erupt into civil war, and the Khmer Rouge –– its cadres swelling with those driven to desperation by the bombings –– would go on to massacre the ruling classes first.

Pakistan isn’t Cambodia. Nor can external threats dislodge the state (though the state’s own branches may swat at each other). But as drones continue their assault on Fata, the US is going down the same route that led it to misery 40 years ago. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that out of 312 drone strikes, of which an incredible 260 have been under Barack Obama, over 3,000 people have been killed –– 175 being children.

Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta still calls the drones ‘precise’, and in his casual way, ‘the only game in town’ for disrupting al Qaeda. This settles badly with US Army General David Petraeus’ top advisor David Kilcullen telling Congress: “Since 2006, we’ve killed 14 senior al Qaeda leaders using drone strikes; in the same time period, we’ve killed 700 Pakistani civilians in the same area.” Panetta’s ‘precise’, then, means slaughtering 50 Pakistanis for one leader.

Kilcullen’s theory that the drones create more enemies than kill them, doesn’t concern itself with law or morality. It is grounded in logic. But by operating unmanned robots using joysticks from afar, the Obama Administration thinks it prevents body bags coming home on American television. It certainly finds drones morally ambiguous enough to joke about: in 2010, President Obama threatened his daughters’ potential love interests with “boys (…), two words for you: Predator drones”.

However, the responsibility for giving rise to this state of affairs begins with us. The drone strikes receive a passive support from our leadership as they are operated out of our own airbases. Besides the odd complaint from the Foreign Office, any campaign from our diplomatic circles against the strikes is nonexistent. The more we use the ‘sovereignty’ excuse to save face rather than to uphold international law, the more we diminish any perception of actual sovereignty in the eyes of the world.

But maybe the saddest development of the drone wars is how fragmented we have become. Where we should do the obvious and stand against drone attacks ‘as one man’ (to badly paraphrase Jinnah), we instead let militants killing us justify drones killing us. Those with the strongest anti-drone rhetoric –– like the Tehreek-i-Insaf and the religious parties –– are objectionable to some. But hating those who hate drone attacks shouldn’t push otherwise rational human beings to support these attacks either. The conservatives let down their own cause too, by tiptoeing around a brand of militancy that refuses to recognise even the idea of Pakistan. There is a middle ground, and it’s defined by holding Pakistani lives sacred: uninfringeable by either anti-state militants or Predator drones. But to act on the middle ground and to neutralise both, doesn’t make for catchy headlines. It takes years of sustained development, reallocating the Center’s resources to the northern areas, and reforming our anti-terror sentencing mechanisms into less of a joke. It means, our diplomats begin a concerted effort to condemn the strikes and raise awareness about it. It means starting a dialogue with local stakeholders and acting with compassion towards their interests.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2012.