Finally, some sense on drones

Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani KharEarlier this year, an American think tank published a study claiming that no civilians have been killed by drone strikes in 2012. Considering the difficulty in collecting information in areas affected by drone strikes and the tendency of militants to live among civilians, callously putting them in the direct line of fire, basic common sense says that claiming that absolutely no civilians have been killed is a hard claim to accept.

Another American study, published more recently, claims that drones are terrorising civilians. While it is certainly more believable that drones are terrifying for those living in affected areas, this report is also riddled with problems. Even though media claims that the report was written by ‘experts’, it was actually written by students. Most importantly, though, it was funded by an anti-drone organisation in the UK. This is rather like asking the CIA to fund a study on the effectiveness of drones – the conclusion is bought and paid for.

Obviously, that does not mean that people living in areas affected by militants and drone strikes are not terrorised. Actually, it would be surprising if they were not. They’re living in a war zone, and, while I’ve never personally found a headless body on the side of the road, I can imagine that it must be severely traumatising. That’s what is left out of the equation by those who seized on the latest ‘study’ to condemn drone strikes as ineffective – the responsibility of militant groups for causing the trauma in the first place, both by terrorising locals and by putting them in danger by hiding in their villages.

This has been the status of the drone debate since the past few years – you are expected to either wholly embrace drones and ignore any problems with them, or ignore reality and condemn them as weapons that only kill women and children.

Thankfully, a sensible position has finally been taken and, hopefully, an honest discussion can now be held about the controversial issue.

Speaking in New York, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said that “Pakistan does not disagree with what drones are trying to achieve by targeting terrorists but they remain unlawful”. This statement importantly acknowledges what the military has said in the past – most of those killed in drone attacks were militants.

General Officer Commanding 7-Division Maj-Gen Ghayur Mehmood said in a briefing here: “Myths and rumours about US predator strikes and the casualty figures are many, but it’s a reality that many of those being killed in these strikes are hardcore elements, a sizeable number of them foreigners.

“Yes there are a few civilian casualties in such precision strikes, but a majority of those eliminated are terrorists, including foreign terrorist elements.”

Importantly, however, the Foreign Minister’s statement also acknowledges that it is not realistic for one country to carry out unilateral attacks inside another country without creating resentment and possibly undermining the actual goal of the strikes.

While drones have killed a lot of militants, they have also given those same militants an effective propaganda tool not only against the US, but against our own government who gets accused of selling the nation’s sovereignty. This may be an unfair accusation, it is one that is too easy for militants to use and therefore cannot be ignored.

By cutting through the single-mindedness that dominates both sides of the drone debate, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar has created an opening for solving the issue in a way that could maximise the effectiveness of the fight against militants while respecting what are real issues regarding sovereignty (as opposed to the phoney ghairat brigade kind). The details, wether they include technology transfers, PAF pilots, or some other cooperative measures are for officials of both nations to work out between themselves. For now, though, it’s good to know that at least there’s finally someone willing to have a rational conversation about a complex issue.

2 thoughts on “Finally, some sense on drones

  1. Mahmood–Good post. The drone debate is in dire need of more myth-busting pieces like this.

    Two things:

    First, contrary to foreign minister Khar, the use of armed drones by an external actor in Pakistan’s FATA is not illegal simply because the government of Pakistan has given the U.S. authority to operate UAVs in the tribal regions. Had there been no consent to do so, then yes, it would be unlawful. Pakistani civilian authorities and at times military officials themselves publically gripe about drones to cultivate political points.

    Second, the drone program is not perfect, therefore we should try to conjure up an alternative. Yes, drones can sap much of the energies of terror groups, but they also generate anti-Americanism and award violent extremists with a propoganda bonanza. These realities are well known. What is lacking is a clear path to countering terror without using drones. The million dollar question on everybodies mind from Washington to Islamabad is, “What else can be done?” No one has an answer. So for the forseeable future, blemishes and all, drones are here to stay.

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