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The drone dilemma


By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times , June 14, 2013


Following the June 7 drone strike on Al Qaeda targets in the mountainous Shawal area of Waziristan, Pakistan summoned Ambassador Richard Hoagland, the deputy head of the US mission, to protest this violation of its sovereignty. It was the tenth time that an American official had to listen to Pakistani "umbrage" over the 353rd predator strike into Pakistani territory at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officials there insist at least since 2010 no drone attack went unchallenged, mostly through formal protest notes. But drones continue to lob Hellfire missiles on suspected targets.

President Asif Zardari in a recent interview with journalists and anchors representing various private Pakistani TV channels probably provided the answer to what a very senior army official had described as "helplessness".

"Even if you shoot down a drone, what next?" Zardari quipped when one of the anchors pressed the issue and questioned Pakistan's inaction against the pilotless aerial vehicles. He probably knows that the CIA-Pentagon will chase and kill anybody they consider inimical to American interests - regardless of whether Pakistan or Afghanistan like it or not.

The monthly average of deaths in the 342 strikes between January 1, 2004 and December 31 2012 is about 27, with 2,670 people killed. There were only eight or so strikes between 2004 and 2006. The number of attacks between 2008 and 2012 comes close to 67, or more than five per month. The figures for the first five months of 2013 indicate a substantial decline. Is it a result of raging criticism of the drone campaign within and outside the United States? Or is the anxious Obama administration - confronted with real hard choices ahead of next year's presidential election and the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan - looking for ways that could facilitate its Afghanistan strategy? Has it deescalated the controversial drone campaign as a quid pro quo? There have been just about 11 strikes in over five months this year, compared with 50 drone attacks in 2012, killing 378 people (according to Ministry of Interior figures).

Does it reflect a more cautious and calibrated approach by the CIA in deference to the growing chorus of criticism? Or is the United States now looking for a middle ground to meet with impending challenges flowing from an embattled Afghanistan, and an increasingly erratic President Hamid Karzai? 

If yes, and even if the drone campaign continued with far lesser ferocity, will this mitigate the primary concern - the violation of sovereignty of Pakistani territory? Certainly not. Or if these attacks came to a halt altogether, will Pakistan Army be able to hunt down terrorists holed up in Waziristan? How is the campaign against drone attacks related to the urgently-needed improvement in governance and greater economic dividends to the common man? 

UN officials, analysts and ex security officials in the US and the UK are also looking at the issue more in the international law perspective than the perspective of utility. They are also seized with the specter of a third country, say India, using the same technology invoking the pretext of "terrorists camps inside Pakistan", or Pakistan launching such preemptive strikes against persons or groups considered detrimental to Pakistani interests.

In this context, the use of unmanned deadly machines have certainly set a dangerous precedent, also because the Obama administration still considers them useful and thus a legitimate tool against anti-US elements.

Anti-drone British campaigners, according The Guardian (June 7) have also joined other critics of the drones led by the UN to argue that the use of remotely piloted drones by British forces in Afghanistan may be in breach of international law.

A recent document written by Phil Shiner and Dan Carey of the Birmingham-based Public Interest Lawyers challenges the well-established legal defence set out by the RAF for deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the UN-sanctioned conflict. In essence, this opinion also challenges the US defense of the drones. 

It argues that use of drones inside Afghanistan is subject to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). "The requirement to use 'no more [force] than absolutely necessary' in article 2(2) places a significant restriction on drone use," it says. "Only when it is absolutely necessary to kill someone rather than arrest/disable them will the use of drones be lawful. And even then, drones may only be used for one of the purposes in article 2(2), most relevantly, in self defence under 2(2)(c)."

This leads us to four conclusions:

a) Drones are illegal and a breach of sovereignty if not sanctioned

b) Drones have a certain utility for all (besides three dozen Arab and African Al Qaeda militants, drones also killed Baitullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain, Ilyas Kashmiri, Walirurrehman - all Pakistanis but avowed enemies of Pakistan)

c) The CIA will not relent in its hunt for its declared enemies (whoever and wherever they are)

d) Pakistan, despite its opposition to the lethal pilotless drones, is virtually helpless in the face of a US-led NATO resolve to deploy drones wherever necessary

This is an unpleasant challenge to both the United States and Pakistan. Is there a middle ground for the two countries? Should they, and more importantly can they, find a mechanism which apportions part of the responsibility of the drone strikes to Pakistan Army?

They probably can, if Pakistan were able to flag the utility argument in its national interest. If the CIA eliminates militants such as Hakimullah Mehsud and Mangal Bagh, the "avowed enemies" of the country, why cannot this be turned into a pro-Pakistan narrative?

How can the Sharif government bridge the gap between its oft repeated - though in vain - opposition to drones and the need for hunting down elements hostile to western and Pakistani interests? This will also require an admission - at least for future - that the CIA does provide the Pakistani mission in Washington with a detailed illustrated run-down of almost every drone strike. Legally, Sharif must convey to the US administration that the presence of Al Qaeda linked foreigners does not justify undermining Pakistani sovereignty. Neither can a unilateral CIA strike be legitimized in the name of US interests alone because the CIA cannot and must not be seen as protecting the US national interests by trampling Pakistan's national interests. 

No doubt that the relentless drone campaign has killed or scared dozens of Arab and African Al Qaeda operatives out of Waziristan. The sense that one gathers from residents of Waziristan is one of relief. But how does the central government recalibrate its own anti-drone position, and the PTI-led chorus against the predator strikes? 

Washington and Islamabad face the most formidable challenge of finding the middle ground that is absolutely essential for the $7 billion drawdown of US-led international troops from Afghanistan via Pakistan. Containing and neutralizing an increasingly desperate Karzai represents another big challenge even if the US and Pakistan find a middle ground. Karzai is not only upping the ante by making statements in the media, but has also worked behind the scenes to stall the Doha process.

Why can the US and Pakistan not call their anti-terrorist activity "joint operations" and reach the absolutely essential middle ground?

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk