While Pakistan’s security forces battle al Qaeda-inspired Pakistani Taliban militants in the volatile tribal regions of Bajaur and Orakzai, CIA-operated drones continue chasing foreign al-Qaeda operatives hiding in the wild Waziristan region. The latest such strike on a hide-out in South Waziristan tribal area near the Afghan border took out eight militants earlier this week, including an Egyptian allied with al-Qaeda, Hamza al-Jufi.
Believed to be operating out of Forward Operating Base Chapman, located across the border in Khost, Afghanistan, drones have struck targets inside Pakistan at least 141 times since 2004, including 45 attacks already this year so far. Regardless of how effective drones may be against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, their use is the subject of widespread debate, due in large part to questions about the legality of the drones.
Condemnation of such attacks and their characterization as a violation of the “sovereignty, solidarity, integrity and defense of Pakistan,” in the words of Pakistani parliamentarian Imran Khan, is primarily rooted in the context of the global war against terrorism that began in October 2001 under President George Bush. This association with Bush has in part led many conservative Pakistanis and right-wing political groups such as the Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam to openly oppose the drone strikes.
Even the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Waziristan-based group that is spearheading the insurgency in the northwestern regions, has justified attacks as a reaction to the drone strikes.
Others object not to the drones, but to Pakistani public opinion on their use. For instance, Ayaz Ameer, an analyst-turned-politician, and an MP from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N, said at a recent conference hosted by my Islamabad think tank that Pakistani officials take two contradictory positions on drone strikes: publicly condemning them while endorsing them privately.
Chriss Rogers, research fellow at Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), said at the forum, “Since Pakistan formally never raised the issue at any international forum nor did it formally and officially issue statement against it, there seemed to be a tacit understanding between the United States and Pakistan over it.”
But covert Pakistani consent does not necessarily make the strikes legal. According to Ahmar Bilal Soofi, an expert in international law, “The United States is applying drones in the name of self-defense and the war on al-Qaeda, but even this is a violation of international law and Pakistani sovereignty.” Furthermore, he argues, “These means become even more objectionable because the CIA is operating drone strikes, thereby compromising issues such as transparency and accountability.”
Some observers have also suggested that a Pakistani operation of the drones could significantly blunt criticism of the strikes. Indeed Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and army leaders have frequently asked that the technology be transferred to Pakistan, and has said that such a transfer would blunt criticism of the strikes..
Increasingly, Pakistani critics have also relied on arguments made by Philip Alston, a New York University law professor and the U.N. special representative on extrajudicial executions, who in a June report recommended that the U.S. military handle drone strikes against the Taliban and al-Qaeda-related militants in Pakistan, and also wrote that, “[i]f a State commits a targeted killing in the territory of another State, the second State
should publicly indicate whether it gave consent, and on what basis.”
Set against the backdrop of the recent command change in Afghanistan, U.S. policy on the drone attacks may perhaps also undergo some qualitative changes. Particularly in view of Obama’s search for rapid success in Afghanistan, for which Pakistan’s support is crucial, the Obama administration may work out a mechanism that, while eliminating al-Qaeda members, also addresses Pakistani concerns on the legality of drone strikes. This change could also erase quite a bit of mistrust of the U.S. in Pakistan and help improve bilateral cooperation. But Pakistan’s government must first end its dueling public and private positions on drones and state clearly where it stands on this simmering issue.