Drone attacks, a convenient explanation

By blaming extremism on only 9/11 and U.S.-led drone attacks, the Pakistani state and society are seeking to externalise an internal issue

November 16, 2013 02:12 am | Updated May 28, 2016 08:45 am IST

The killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in a recent drone attack in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas has once again brought the debate back centre stage — within Pakistan at the national level, and between the United States and Pakistan at the bilateral level. While “sovereignty” and “spoiling the internal dialogue with the TTP” seem to be the primary slogans within Pakistan, “come what may, we will go after the militants” seems to sum up the American attitude. But are the drone attacks simply about these slogans and attitudes? Or, are there more serious and complicated issues than what is generally discussed at the populist level?

Sharif’s four assertions

During his visit to the U.S. in October, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif put forward four primary theses against the American-led drones programme, forcefully arguing that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) should cease using them. First, there was the general Pakistani perception that the drone attacks have increased extremism within Pakistan, resulting in further militant attacks within the country. Second, it impinged on Pakistan’s sovereignty, as the drones fired from across the Durand Line in Afghanistan fly over Pakistan territory and fire missiles, killing innocent civilians. Even if militants do get killed, the collateral damage is high. Third, as a result of these two, there is a growing anti-American sentiment within Pakistan, affecting Pakistan’s cooperation with the U.S., thereby further impinging on the American war against terrorism. Finally, continuing attacks undermine Pakistan’s efforts towards initiating a dialogue with the Taliban. How true are these perceptions that are widespread within Pakistan?

Undoubtedly, there is an element of truth in these four assertions. And, ironically, within them lies Pakistani duplicity. First, are the drones the primary reason for growing extremism within Pakistan? Or for that matter, 9/11 and the follow-up American invasion into Afghanistan? There is a blinkered perception in Pakistan about the extent of extremism pre- and post-9/11 and the drone attacks. Viewed in historical and sociological perspectives, the growth of extremism within Pakistan, with its roots in the 1980s, grew exponentially during the 1990s. Afghanistan and Kashmir became the much-needed ideological excuses for the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to pursue their “strategic depth” and “thousand cuts” vis-à-vis Afghanistan and India respectively.

Radicalism before 9/11

While the political and sociological environment vitiated by the late Pakistan President Zia-ul-Haq and the failure of governance have already given birth to extremist groups (of the sectarian and jihadi kind) — of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) varieties — the abuse of these actors by the military and the ISI created an ugly internal situation for Pakistan from the 1990s. Extremism and radicalism were well entrenched at the national and provincial levels well before drone attacks and even 9/11.

Any historical analysis of sectarian violence in Punjab, Malakand and the tribal regions will reveal the scope of radical tumult by the late 1990s. Had it not been for this churning within Pakistan, neither would the Taliban have been born, nor the al-Qaeda found the region an ideal refuge and base to prepare for 9/11. Linking extremism within Pakistan only to drones and 9/11 reflects an ostrich-like attitude. It perhaps provides a convenient explanation, worse, an excuse for both the State and society to externalise an internal issue. The radical onslaught today in Pakistan is a direct result of what happened in the 1980-90s, both internally and externally; irrespective of 9/11, the American invasion and the drones, Pakistan would have gone through what it is going through now.

Link with sovereignty

The second major instance of Pakistani duplicity is over linking drones with sovereignty. There has been a tacit understanding between the political and military leadership vis-à-vis the U.S. on the use of drones. Starting from Gen. Musharraf to Gen. Kayani, were they not kept in the picture on the drone programme? Perhaps the CIA may not have shared the operational details, but it certainly should have explained to them the target and focus.

Drones, by nature, are not supersonic and stealth creatures; they fly at low altitude and are visible. If Pakistan had not agreed to their use, what stopped Gen. Musharraf and Gen. Kayani from issuing orders to fire at them? How many times has Pakistan fired at these drones, or its air force chased these drones away from Pakistani airspace? Is Pakistan incapable of firing at the drones, thereby allowing its airspace to be violated?

It is difficult to accept that Pakistan does not have the capacity to fire at drones using missiles, or chase them using fighter aircraft. Hypothetically speaking, if India were to use similar drones in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, will Islamabad and Rawalpindi keep complaining only about violation of airspace? Pakistan’s sovereignty argument does not make any sense.

The sovereignty argument over the use of drones also contradicts Pakistan’s earlier understanding with the U.S. Before the CIA took the drone programme into Afghanistan, across the Durand Line, were not drones being used from the Shamsi base in Balochistan? What was the understanding between the CIA and Pakistan’s military at that time, when the latter allowed the former to use the Shamsi airbase by the U.S.?

These are hard questions that Pakistan should ask its political and military leadership. Unfortunately for the U.S., the anti-American sentiment has greatly clouded the judgment of Pakistan’s civil society on this issue. Perhaps Mr. Nawaz Sharif is correct; drone attacks have increased anti-American sentiments, but the political leadership has allowed this purposefully to happen — to let the Americans take the full blame.

On dialogue

Finally, the issue of drones preventing Pakistan from initiating a dialogue with the Taliban, especially the TTP. True, the killing of Nek Mohammad, a former Taliban fighter, in 2004 did affect the dialogue then between the militants and Pakistan; however, after that, there were multiple dialogues between the military, the ISI and the TTP. Perhaps the drone attacks and the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud is a good omen for Pakistan. The TTP may get destabilised and will provide a better opportunity for Pakistan to negotiate with them — from a position of strength.

(D. Suba Chandran is director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.)

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