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Can Pakistan shoot down US drones?

Last updated: Tuesday, June 04, 2013 11:27 PM
Can Pakistan shoot down US drones?


Mansoor Jafar
Al Arabiya


ONCE again the US has killed the peace in Pakistan, just when the country badly needed it. US drones assassinated Waliur Rehman Mehsud, the second-in-command of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the militant group in tribal areas engaged in fighting against Pakistan’s army to avenge the country’s support of the US war on terror.

The attack was carried out on May 29 while Pakistan’s new parliament was preparing to be sworn in with high hopes of restoring peace to the country which has been a battlefield of the US war on terror for over a decade, killing over 60,000 civilians and destroying infrastructure, economy, agriculture and above all tourism. The attack came just as Islamabad was getting ready to welcome the new US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, who reached the city with US President Obama’s message of good wishes for the new Pakistani government.

Waliur Rehman was one of the few TTP leaders who supported the idea of negotiating with Islamabad to bring an end to the civil-war like situation in the country. And he is not the only supporter of the dialogue process with the Pakistan army whom Washington has assassinated with drone strikes. Many of his like-minded contemporaries were killed in the same manner during the last nine years, shortly after they had struck some kind of peace deal with Pakistan’s army and government.

As expected, soon after his death was confirmed, the TTP withdrew the offer of talks with Pakistan and announced plans to avenge his death with the Pakistani establishment. The news cast a pall of gloom over the entire country, as Pakistan’s Prime Minister-elect Mian Nawaz Sharif termed it a conspiracy against the peace efforts of Pakistan. Opposition leader Imran Khan offered Nawaz Sharif unconditional support if he  decides to start his third term as prime minister of the county by announcing that Pakistan will  shoot down US drones.

Pakistan has always termed the drone attacks not only a violation of international law and the sovereignty of the country, but also counterproductive since they create many more terrorists than they kill.

According to estimates, over 5,000 people have been killed in drone strikes, less than four percent of whom were militants while the rest were innocent civilians, including women and children. But Washington has always refused to listen to its frontline ally in the war on terror, calling drone attacks an effective weapon in the war on terror which it intends to use more and more. The US began drone attacks on Pakistan in 2004 under the Bush administration, and one of the initial drone attacks killed a popular tribal chief, Nek Muhammad, the day after he struck a peace deal with the Pakistan army, agreeing to stop attacks on military establishments and convoys.

During the initial years, drones were used sparingly but their frequency increased after Obama became president in 2008. Washington brushed aside all protests by Pakistan in this regard, sticking to its own reasons for continuing with the drone strikes.

US State Department legal advisor Harold Koh says drone strikes are legal because of Washington’s right to self-defense. According to Koh, Americans are engaged in an armed conflict with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their affiliates, and therefore may use force consistent with self-defense under international law. Former CIA officials state that the agency uses a careful screening process in making decisions on which individuals to kill with drone strikes. The process, carried out at the agency’s counter-terrorist center, involves up to 10 lawyers who write briefs justifying the targeting of specific individuals. If the briefs’ arguments are weak, the request to target the individual is denied. Since 2008 the CIA has relied less on its list of individuals and increasingly on targeted “signatures,” or a suspect’s behavior as monitored by satellite, with data gathered on the basis of confirmed intelligence reports.

Interestingly, the CIA euphemistically criticizes this change in tactics, saying it resulted in fewer deaths of high-value targets and in more deaths of lower-level fighters, or “mere foot soldiers.” However, “signature” targeting has been a controversy, as drone critics claim that the behavior of common citizens can easily be mistaken for militant signatures.

Even if the CIA’s bizarre logic is accepted, who should be held accountable for about 96 percent of civilian deaths caused by US drones? Pakistan’s condemnation of drone attacks has gradually found an increasing number of supporters among world dignitaries. Now even American politicians and intelligentsia have begun condemning drone strikes. US philosopher, historian and political critic, Noam Chomsky was among the first critics of drone attacks. Recently, more Americans joined in. Former US Congressman Dennis Kucinich asserted that the United States was violating international law by carrying out strikes against a country that never attacked the United States. Georgetown University professor, Gary D. Solis, asserts that since drone operators at the CIA are civilians directly engaged in armed conflict, this makes them “unlawful combatants” and possibly subject to prosecution.

A few years back, hundreds of protestors gathered outside the Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada Desert demanding an end to drone strikes in Pakistan. However, Washington has been adamant about continuing with drone strikes, and raised the budget for drone attacks in 2011, arguing that drone attacks were aimed at protecting the US army in Afghanistan and were aimed at destabilizing Taliban militants in Pakistan.

Despite the recent uproar in the new Pakistani parliament, the situation in the US and statements of Pakistan’s president Asif Zardari indicate that drone attacks could continue for a longer time, and that most of the anti-drone statements are mere political sloganeering.

In a recent interview, President Asif Zardari, who is also the supreme commander of the armed forces and is mandated to issue directives to shoot down the drones, said quite naively that he was unaware of any secret deal allowing drone attacks. Zardari tried to scare his countrymen by saying if a drone were shot down, then there would be repercussions.

Moreover, Pakistan’s army chief, General Parvez Kayani, has often termed the war on terror as Pakistan’s own war. In a recent unusual shift of military doctrine, Pakistan’s Army has changed the 66-year-old concept of the biggest threat to national security. Instead of arch enemy India, the army has now identified guerrilla militancy from the tribal areas against the armed forces and civilians as the biggest threat to the country’s security.

Against this backdrop, the implementation of the much trumpeted demand to shoot down American drones made by rightwing parties during the election campaign seems a far cry. The new government, which is confronting gigantic challenges ranging from an energy crisis to an economic crunch, will be left with no option but repeating the stereotyped rhetoric by blaming previous regimes for allowing US drone strikes to occur under international guarantees.

— Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. Follow him on Twitter @mansoorjafar


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