The case against drone attacks

Published: March 7, 2012
The writer is a final-year law student at the London School of Economics and tweets @AsadRahim

The writer is a final-year law student at the London School of Economics and tweets @AsadRahim

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.

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Reader Comments (35)

  • hamza majeed
    Mar 7, 2012 - 12:26AM

    Drones have managed to kill hundreds of terrorists who’ve murdered thousands of our people.the drones get to targets which traditional military forces can’t get to easily.they’ve killed so many terrorists who’ve taken responsibility for training,planning and sending out suicide bombers to bomb our cities.


  • ali
    Mar 7, 2012 - 12:50AM

    Actually tribals are more afraid of artillery fire and airforce bombing raids than drones. Over 5000 bombing raids have been conducted by PAF. Why are we silent over that.


  • Mj
    Mar 7, 2012 - 1:07AM

    If drone are fueling extremism and terrorism, then how come the families of 35,000 victims of terrorist attacks are not retaliating in a similar destructive manner?

    The figure of 700 civilians casualties as a result of drone attacks is inexcusable. But how many of them were living with their militant family members. Watch any documentary on Taliban and you’ll see commanders living with their multiple wives and bevy of children.


  • Dee Cee
    Mar 7, 2012 - 1:48AM

    The article should have been about “The case against drone attacks AND EXTREMISM.” Removing drones without removing militancy doesn’t make sense, and till the “middle ground” appears feasible, the status quo, militancy and drone attacks, will continue. So, the author, by advocating middle ground rejects his own assertion in the beginning of the article that drone attacks are “bad” in spite of militancy. Middle ground means that drone attacks are valid because of militancy, and as militancy declines, the drone attacks decline too. Howver, we need to ask ourselves, “does the human cost justify the results?”


  • Sanjeev Tripathi
    Mar 7, 2012 - 2:05AM

    Please keep writing more. you are far better than many of the senior established columnists. And that is just the beginning.


  • Mar 7, 2012 - 2:09AM

    This is very well said. Each life is sacred whether those taken by drones or those picked up by our agencies. However, as is always the case, the major stakeholder on our side is the military, which you have ignored. Our diplomats and politicans are powerless, as the US directly deals with the military bypassing them. Who is going to change their mindsets?


  • John B
    Mar 7, 2012 - 2:12AM

    US boots on the ground, PAK boots on the ground, drones, or the Al-Qaeda and their compatriots.-Take a pick.

    Stop the breeding grounds of al-Qaeda, and drones stop automatically. The war in this world is not fought in designated front lines under remote areas anymore. That is the reality. In case the author did not know there is war going on in Baluchistan also and PAK jets and helicopters regularly kill “militants with precision” in KP area.


  • sish
    Mar 7, 2012 - 2:13AM

    this made me cry…we must all stand against this menace, please, if not now then when


  • Pilx
    Mar 7, 2012 - 2:21AM

    good to finally see something that is amybe THE MOST important of our issues having such a clear stance put out on it in ET.


  • yousaf
    Mar 7, 2012 - 3:13AM

    @author:–Very good analysis of the situation.You have rightly said that the way things are going we will have “one man standing” in the end.


  • Faris
    Mar 7, 2012 - 3:42AM

    @hamza majeed

    Sort of like a hydra-headed monster; they may kill ‘hundreds of terrorists’ but history shows again and again that this is not the sort of way to deal with this this kind of danger. and what of the hundreds of hitherto apathetic tribals it turns into terrorists when it re-circles overhead and kills their families? This isn’t working, and it’s right of the author to say it plainly.


  • omar
    Mar 7, 2012 - 4:24AM

    Asad, I agree with you and you have a good point but with respect i think you are too trusting of our government. Our own army is full of traitors and turncoats who bow to religious extremists rather than protect pakistanis. they’re not capable of defending us. Yes there is collateral damage and it is horrific but if our army and government was more trustworthy it never would have had to come to this. To have another country police us. OBL was found right inside Abottabad for gods sake! I don’t know how you can seriously think our own armed forces are a better alternative for our safety. We need more transparency and cooperation with the US to ensure less collateral damage as well as politicians who can speak bravely about religious extremism.

    We also truly don’t know how many deaths have been averted and lives saved because of this.


  • Ali Wazir
    Mar 7, 2012 - 4:44AM

    @ali: Great choice Pakistan provide its Tribal ppl Bombed by drones or bombed by PAF.
    The blade or the plank. Arrrr……


  • Ali Tanoli
    Mar 7, 2012 - 5:23AM

    what is diffrence left in Khmer Rouge American Bombing in Vietnam or Combodia Hitler or British killing of indians in 1857 freedom war ?????


  • Mir Agha
    Mar 7, 2012 - 5:40AM

    Pakistan should test out drones (developmental) against the baloch terrorists. Watch the outcry amongst the bubbled liberals.


  • Bakir Mukeem
    Mar 7, 2012 - 6:51AM

    @John B:

    I wonder why US doesnt use drones in afghanistan and has decided to negotiate with talibans instead.


  • MarkH
    Mar 7, 2012 - 7:18AM

    It’s kill or be killed. What military would choose possibility of their own death over a remote control that can be used to kill them safely? Anyone in the vicinity is a probable supporter. I don’t care who wants to claim otherwise. It’s illogical. Go put your necks on the line and then judge.


  • alicia
    Mar 7, 2012 - 7:39AM

    I agree with MJ
    I do not support drones but I can not understand why the foreign militants living on our soil cannot be thrown out by the tribesman? Those foreign militants have also destroyed 35000 families. Who will stand up for those 35000 people?


  • Mar 7, 2012 - 8:30AM

    @Bakir Mukeem:

    They dont use drones in Afghanistan because they can use their own troops to fight the insurgents. Since, Pakistan is providing shelter, US has no option to but to use them. Get it?Recommend

  • Shakky
    Mar 7, 2012 - 8:48AM

    @Asad Rahim Khan: Unlike the Cambodians, the terrorists are not interested in building an agrarian paradise. The drones kill 700 and the terrorists kill thousands. Not too difficult to see which is the more egregious. Blame those who have invited the terrorists into FATA. And, perhaps, have some empathy for the many innocent Pakistanis who have lost their lives at the hands of the Taliban. The drones are here to avenge their deaths as well.


  • numbersnumbers
    Mar 7, 2012 - 9:06AM

    @Bakir Mukeem:
    Woiw, in case you didn’t know, the Americans fly more drone missions over Afghanistan than anywhere else. They use their loiter capacity to watch over large areas of the country, looking for Taliban movements and operations day and night. The main difference being that inside Afghanistan the ISAF can go anywhere to challenge the Taliban once they are detected, but cannot chase them when they (Taliban) scurry back across the Pakistani border to their SAFE HAVENS INSIDE PAKISTAN!


  • Rors
    Mar 7, 2012 - 9:07AM

    This is one of those rare times that the drones have been denounced by someone who’s done it well and thoroughly, and the fact that it’s not coming from, as said above, PTI or the religious parties, is positively confusing to the people commenting on this piece. Asad is saying something neither of you picked up, Its not EITHER-OR. We can’t be soft on terror, equally, the drones are counter-productive on all levels. Thank you ET for putting this up.Recommend

  • Cindy
    Mar 7, 2012 - 10:02AM

    What an excellent analysis, the comparison was a delightful read. Very few people know about what they’re writing and make sense in the process, you seem to have beautifully achieved both. Eloquently put, look forward to reading more from you.


  • Bakir Mukeem
    Mar 7, 2012 - 10:49AM


    you didnt get my question, THEY ARE NOT USING WEAPONS they are negotiating with talibans in afghanistan and using drones in pakistan and want to go after haqqani network while negotiating with afghani factions of talibans. Would love to hear your thoughts.


  • Faris
    Mar 7, 2012 - 11:36AM

    ‘How fragmented we’ve become’. yes, the comments say it all


  • Waqas ur Rahman
    Mar 7, 2012 - 12:35PM

    Excellent Article brother. Bulls Eye. Drones are CURSE, so are LIBERALS.


  • wonderer
    Mar 7, 2012 - 12:39PM

    There was a fundamental change in the character of Pakistan army after the 1971 debacle and the emergence of Zia as the dictator. The seeds of radicalization in the army were laid then. A very strong desire to teach India a lesson in revenge for 1971 led to the evolution of the concept of strategic depth and use of terror as state policy. There are terror groups in Pakistan which are. even today, regarded as assets for use against India.

    This is the main difference in present day Pakistan and Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge. It is thus not surprising that Drone attacks are tolerated quietly, the frequent howls of sovereignty violation notwithstanding.


  • John B
    Mar 7, 2012 - 12:46PM

    Until early 1980s, the world was on hair trigger alert, and Cambodia and Vietnam were the eastern front of the reminiscent WW II. Many of the commentators, including the author were in kindergarden then. Enough said on this matter.

    The author conveniently forgot to ask one salient question:why the all patriotic PAK army is an active partner in drone attacks despite their differences with US and allowed the US to use their own airbase to fly and arm the drones?


  • mogambo
    Mar 7, 2012 - 3:38PM

    Nothing new for the civilians.Recommend

  • Sikander
    Mar 7, 2012 - 5:28PM

    @hamza majeed:
    I don’t understand Pakistani liberals. All over liberals stand for anti-war sentiment and here we have liberals screaming to blow up people with hell fire drones.
    how do you justify hundreds of civilian casualties at the cost of a few tens of terrorists. Don’t we have special forces to conduct raids whenever necessary? The terrorist could have been easily cornered if we only had the tribal people on our side. but no, blow em up.. thats right. cuz it appeases your liberal senses to blow up the evil taliban, no matter what the cost. You are the biggest fascist of all, wolf in sheep’s skin.Recommend

  • Sikander
    Mar 7, 2012 - 5:32PM

    @John B:
    Drones are the fertilizers for breeding grounds for Al-Qaida __ Recommend

  • Mar 7, 2012 - 8:47PM

    @Bakir Mukeem:

    Pakistan is also adopting the same strategy. The only difference is NATO missiles are more accurate and kill far less people.

    Last year we heard how many people got displaced because Pakistanis were using F16s to drop cluster bombs.

    US can do both, i.e., talk and use the drones because they are here for a limited period. They can experiment. Ultimately, they can choose to leave whenever they want.

    Lets come back to Pakistan. You would agree with me that when you declare that a certain area comes under a Country’s sovereignty then you are responsible for it. That also means you cannot have people going from that area and killing people in other Countries.

    This has been happening with India, Iran, China and Afghanistan, all of Pakistan’s neighbours. So, US says either you control the insurgents or we do it for you. Just be glad that US is doing Pakistan’s work. Since, Pakistan can shoot them down whenever they want, we can assume Pakistani military is in on it too.


  • ten
    Mar 8, 2012 - 2:08AM

    Exceptionally well written. this cause shouldnt be talked lightly about by the commenters


  • fizza
    Mar 8, 2012 - 10:46AM

    drone attacks are difficult to control. even for our government it is difficult to control the use of IEDs.


  • areej
    Mar 8, 2012 - 10:50AM

    EU will be providing pakistan latest robot technology to identify the use of IEDs.


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