The Reality of Civilian Deaths

Military operation in N Waziristan

Say what you will about Imran Khan, but at least he is consistent. The PTI chief opposes American drone strikes, but he opposes Pakistan Army operations also. Unfortunately, Kaptaan’s policy is based in the wishful thinking that the national defence can always be maintained without any civilian deaths. This is a fantasy, not a reality, and national defence requires facing the reality.

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Are Drones Poison, Or Bitter Medicine?

DroneI recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek post about Raymond Davis and drones that was meant to show how the twisted logic of conspiracy theorists can just as easily be used to prove anything – even that Raymond Davis was protecting innocent Pakistanis from drone strikes. But there was one article that I linked to that I think deserves more attention. The article I refer to, of course, is the Los Angeles Times article which quotes Pakistani intelligence officials saying that the Americans are improving the accuracy of drone strikes and even passing on high level targets to protect innocents.

The CIA passed up a chance last year to kill Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of an anti-American insurgent network in Pakistan that is closely linked to Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, when it chose not to fire a missile at him from a Predator drone because women and children were nearby, U.S. and Pakistani officials say.

The incident was one of at least three occasions in the last six months when a militant was identified on video and a shot was available, but U.S. officials decided not to fire in order to avoid civilian casualties, said a senior Pakistani official familiar with the drone program.

No such attempt to protect the lives of innocents has been taken by militants who regularly carry out attacks against ‘soft targets’ such as markets and shrines with hopes of inflicting as many civilian deaths as possible. According to the Pakistan Security Report 2010 released by Pak Institute for Peace Studies, 1,344 civilians were killed or injured by drone strikes in 2010 while 8,737 civilians were killed by militants during the same time.

Obviously, something must be done to stop the militants who are committing wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians. But if not drone strikes, then what is the option? What is left is the blunt instrument of conventional military force. This has been tried in the past and found to cause more civilian deaths than drones. Following the Battle of Mir Ali n 2007, complaints were lodged that fighting killed scores of civilians as well as damaging the homes of innocents. One year ago the Army bombed a village in Khyber, killing at least 73 civilians. This is not due to any malice by the military, simply that it is not the usual job of the military to fight within its own country where it must be sensitive to protecting the civilian population while also fighting terrorists at the same time.

Whether or not we support drones in theory, in practice our options are limited. According to Farhat Taj, this is reason not to protest the drone strikes, but to support them.

The drone attacks on terrorist positions must continue regardless of the number of high value targets they kill. The drone strikes have killed several dozens al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and foot soldiers in FATA, and the local people inform me that the terrorists have sleepless nights due to these drone attacks. They live in fear and focus a good deal of their attention on self-preservation. Without the drone attacks that energy and attention would have been used in terrorist attacks against the Afghan, NATO and US forces in Afghanistan. This pressure must continue on the militants.

The drone attacks on terrorist positions must continue regardless of the number of high value targets they kill. The drone strikes have killed several dozens al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and foot soldiers in FATA, and the local people inform me that the terrorists have sleepless nights due to these drone attacks. They live in fear and focus a good deal of their attention on self-preservation. Without the drone attacks that energy and attention would have been used in terrorist attacks against the Afghan, NATO and US forces in Afghanistan. This pressure must continue on the militants.

Pakistan is infected with a virus of militancy. It is like a cancer that is eating away at the soul of the nation, and slowly killing us from within. There are only a few options open to us in response. None of them are perfect, but some are ‘less bad’ than others. We ignore the cancer and let it slowly consume us; we can use blunt instruments to attack it; or we can use the latest technology to target the virus as closely as possible. Thought about from this perspective, perhaps drones are not more like a bitter medicine than a poison.

Drone Distraction

Drone Distraction

Walking around with D.S. the other day, the mood was low. Taliban bombers had just attacked Baba Farid shrine in the latest of the ongoing attacks against such places – Ahdullah Shah Ghazi a few weeks ago, Data Darbar earlier. I was downtrodden, shuffling my feet in the dust, my head hanging in despair. “If all this is really Taliban revenge for American policy, why are the militants attacking our holy places? How is that supposed to be an attack on America? I feel like I’m the target. Like it’s personal. But nobody seems to care.” D.S. just shrugged and kicked a rock. “I wish the Taliban had drones. Then somebody might care.”

I stopped walking for a minute and we both looked up at each other and burst out in laughter. We started coming up with these stories about how the Americans were using suicide bombers against Taliban hideouts, and the Taliban was attacking shrines with drones. We laughed about how The Nation front page would be filled with stories telling ISI agents to cut ties with their pet Lashkars. D.S. acted an impression of Imran Khan defiantly telling the military to go in and defend the nation’s sovereignty by taking out militant bases in NWA.

We laughed and joked for a while because it was the only way to keep our minds off the reality, which is not so funny.

I remembered this conversation today when I was reading Shahid Saeed and Awais Masood’s comment in Daily Times, “Demystifying the drone“. After reading their analysis, it occurred to me that D.S. might have been joking, but his joke was funny because it raised a really troubling question: Why are people more upset about drone attacks against militants then suicide bombings against innocents?

The answer, according to Saeed and Masood, is that certain elements are exploiting the drone strikes as part of a political strategy to upset the public and then use their anger to gain power.

Drone strikes have evolved to become a national political issue with the media and public opinion constantly pressing the government to take up the issue with the US. Opposition to drone strikes is mostly based on ill-conceived notions of sovereignty, ghairat (honour) and figures that seem to suggest that drone strikes are inaccurate and lead to a high number of civilian casualties (not to suggest that there cannot be any informed opposition to drone strikes). From Imran Khan to Munawar Hasan, right-wing political parties and religious groups have used drone strikes to forward their agenda by misguiding people through erroneous, fabricated and fictional data. As a result, thousands of people have been mobilised across the country to oppose these strikes.

So, how are these right-wing politicals able to fool so many people? It turns out they have a powerful ally – the media.

An online database of suicide bombings and drone strikes in Pakistan is maintained at a website called Pakistan Body Count (hereinafter referred to as PBC) by Dr Zeeshan Usmani, a former Fulbright Scholar and currently Assistant Professor at GIKI. Fulfilling the tradition of the lack of intellectual integrity and dishonesty, his data has been used by various media outlets without giving him credit. The data reports that as of late September 2010, only 32 al Qaeda militants have been killed by US drone strikes in comparison to 1,778 civilians giving a paltry 1.76 percent strike rate accuracy. As we shall show categorically, much of this data is erroneous, flawed and plagued by numerous transgressions. Academic credentials alone cannot guarantee lack of bias and the use of technology cannot assure authenticity of data.

Shahid Saeed and Awais Masood don’t just make some claims without having the evidence to back them up, either. They have put together their data on a website: Dronedata.wordpress.com. Take a moment to check it out.

Look, obviously I’m not defending drone attacks here. Neither is Shahid Saeed and Awais Masood. But let’s be honest with ourselves. You and I are much more likely to get killed or know someone killed by some jihadi than in a drone strike. We need to start asking ourselves if all this attention to drones is distracting us from the real problem.

What’s that? Another militant bombing in Quetta?

Scene of jihadi bomb attack

HEY LOOK OVER HERE!!! SOME DRONES!!!

Drone

The Americans Finally Learned A Lesson

A report in the American New York Times says that the US is going to cut funding and aid for certain troops that were involved in the deaths of some civilians. At first, this might seem like the US cutting support for the military, but since it comes during the same week that the Americans announced an additional $2 Billion in military support, it must be considered something else. Actually, it looks like the Americans finally learned an important lessons.

The US has a rather sordid history of providing military support to whatever leader served their needs, no matter how brutally he treated his people. The Americans armed Saddam Hussein until he was no longer useful. They supported the dictator Pinochet in Chile, and even the Taliban when it was convenient to their Cold War against the Soviet Union. In our own country, the Americans helped prop up military dictators in the past.

But since the 9/11 attack, the Americans have said that they have turned their backs on this past behavior. They said that the mujahideen who they had armed and supported against the Soviet Union turned on them, teaching them that the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. The official policy out of Washington was changed, they said, and they would no longer support dictators or militants or terrorists of any kinds.

Of course, it is easier to speak such words than to act on them. The world viewed this new American position with skepticism, and rightly so. It’s one thing to say that you will stop supporting those groups that have turned on you – but what about those who are still allies?

Today we may have an answer.

For the Americans to say that they will increase support to the military – but withhold it from anyone involved in harming civilians – is welcome evidence that the US has finally learned a lesson and is willing to make the difficult decisions necessary to truly support the people of Pakistan and not just their own interests against Taliban.

Foreign Minister Qureshi stated quite correctly that Pakistan is an ally, not a satellite. We are also not a private Army for the Americans to use in their war. Now, we have our own war against these extremists who have been murdering our brothers and sisters for too long. Even today their viciousness has shown itself again when they exploded a bomb outside a mosque in Pistakhara after Juma. What kind of monster can attack civilians leaving a mosque?

Taliban militants may be willing to kill innocents, but it looks like the Americans are not. The Americans may be the enemy of our enemy, but if they also refuse to support anyone who kills innocents, they are also our friend.