Renewing the Drone Debate | Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

Pakistan giving America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) access to Shamsi airfield, heralded the dawn of a duplicitously convenient era for Islamabad. As drone casualties rose to 252 in 2008, from 36 in 2007, every CIA strike was followed by politicians’ condemnation, and preceded by US-Pak intelligence sharing to identify possible targets. This effective duplicity continued even in the aftermath of ‘Osamagate’, and Pakistan ‘kicking America out’ of Shamsi, with 383 CIA drone casualties in 2011.

It is precisely this intelligence double-play in the AfPak region that has helped the CIA drones take down, among others, ISIS leader Hafiz Mohammed Saeed in July, and the high profile killing of the then TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud in 2013, which instigated hue and cry over the mass murderer’s death.

After it was discovered that a US drone strike aimed towards an al-Qaeda compound killed two innocent hostages — including one American — in January this year, the drone debate was renewed in the White House.

In the aftermath of the discovery White House spokesman Josh Earnest said:
“Our preference when dealing with suspected terrorists is to capture, detain, debrief and prosecute them. But the fact is … in some areas of the world… local authorities have limited capacity and, in some cases, limited will to go after these extremists.”

The above was true for Pakistan before the APS attack nine months ago.

Since then, however, Pakistan has deployed its own armed drone against terrorists with ‘Burraq’ killing “three high profile terrorists” on Monday, according to DG ISPR Asim Bajwa’s Twitter handle. Intriguingly enough on the very same day UK also decided to join the drone party with Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement that the RAF had conducted UK’s first drone strike killing two British citizens who had joined ISIS in Syria.

Several other countries are queuing up to put weapons onto unmanned aircraft, including South Africa, France, Nigeria, Iran, Israel, China and most crucially for us, India. This means that the anti-drone protests generated across the world, for the good part of the past decade, has not been paid any heed by the powers that be across the board.

The much maligned aspect of Barack Obama’s counterterrorism legacy is being adopted by other nations, vindicating its effectiveness and accuracy. This means that the heretofore scepticism regarding drone strikes as extraordinarily inhumane weapons of killing was possibly misguided.

The anti-drone argument in Pakistan was founded upon four-pillars: potential negotiations with the Taliban, civilian casualties, extra-judicial manoeuvring and breach of international law and sovereignty. Any quixotic dreams of negotiating with terrorists, which the leadership of both the top two parties in Pakistan were guilty of, has been thrown off the table, despite the occasion gem from PTI Chief Imran Khan, where he manifests an apparent lack of ability in discerning the difference between Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.

Of the other three pillars, the latter has held the most water despite Pakistan’s claims of breach of de facto sovereignty paling in front of the state’s perpetual inability to exercise any control over FATA and other tribal areas. When Obama considered sending drones into Balochistan to target senior Afghan Taliban leaders in 2010, the Pakistani establishment warned of a major backlash, considering that the “settled areas” were perceived in a completely different light by the masses. Not to mention the fact that the establishment deemed the Afghan Taliban as unthreatening, especially back in 2010, clearly highlighting the state’s double-play on sovereignty.

In any case, the establishment officially controlling the remote control of the drone strikes, and not just complying with US intelligence, means that the breach of sovereignty is no longer a part of the drone debate. However, no matter who controls the remote, collateral damage will continue to be the unwanted baggage of drone strikes. Even so, one can be sure that media reports pertaining to the killings by Burraq and its Pakistani drone brethren will deem all casualties as terrorists, as has been the case in the ongoing military operation Zarb-e-Azb that has been going on in the North West of the country for over a year.

According to available statistics of military conflicts the world over, the civilian casualties range between 33 to 80 percent, depending on the region and military strategy used. This means that even if Pakistan’s military operations are the most accurate and humanistic that the world has seen in recent times – and there is no logical reason to believe so – one out of every three killed person in Operation Zarb-e-Azb has been a civilian. Estimates of drone casualties range civilian casualty ratio between 3 and 20 percent, with better technology and intelligence reducing the collateral damage.

Even though it’s evident that it’s not quite simple to designate ‘civilian’ and ‘terrorist’ tags to those being killed, we seem to forget that the same is true for any kind of military operation. The drone debate, hence, should focus on the technological aspects of the machinery and its accuracy in tracing its targets, especially those militants that can’t be captured and prosecuted otherwise. Whether or not the identified targets are erroneous cannot be pinned on the machine’s prowess.

In an interview with German newspaper Spiegel, in December 2013, a local intelligence operative of the CIA from the tribal areas said that it was “pure propaganda” that the drones primarily targeted civilians. “Does anyone seriously believe that America would wager a costly, politically sensitive war in Pakistan to kill civilians? Most of the victims are enemies of the United States and enemies of Pakistan,” he said.
An Aryana Institute for Regional Research Advocacy (AIRRA) survey from 2009 showed that 52% of the people of FATA vowed for drone strikes’ accuracy, 55% deemed them not responsible for ‘bringing fear and terror’, 60% said militant organisations were effectively damaged by drones and 70% wanted the Pakistan Army to orchestrate drone strikes against militant organisations. In the ensuing couple of years independent investigations by Shahid Saeed and Awais Masood, and Matthew Fricker, Avery Plaw and Brian Glyn Williams revealed that civilian casualties were inflated in initial media reports and that the locals believe in drone’s accuracy, reaffirming AIRRA’s claims.

When we talk about drone killings being ‘extra-judicial’ we seem to forget two crucial points. The first, as has been mentioned above, that on paper at least the drone targets are those militants that can’t be captured and prosecuted. Secondly, we seem to forget the ugly truth that we are in a state of war, and have been for the past decade or so.

When we clamour against capital punishment, which like drone strikes or military operations is barefaced murder according to the human rights rulebook, we seem to forget that wartime manuals and sensibilities are quite different from epochs of (relative) peace. As insensitive as it is to reduce the casualties to numbers, and as noble the endeavour is to shield innocents from judicial, or extrajudicial, murder, the aim should always be to reduce collateral damage based on wartime balance of probabilities.
Humankind has never been able to eliminate collateral damage in war. The humanitarian aspect of counterterrorism should thence be dedicated to minimising it. That is the idea that should be at the centre of any renewed drone debate.


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