The South Asia Channel

Voice of a native son: Drones may be a necessary evil

The biggest debate surrounding the Afghanistan-Pakistan region today concerns the U.S. drone program in Pakistan’s tribal regions, which target the militants who terrorize and kill local residents, and who attack American soldiers inside Afghanistan. Ironically, the anti-war group CODEPINK — members of which visited Pakistan last week to protest drone strikes — along with much ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

The biggest debate surrounding the Afghanistan-Pakistan region today concerns the U.S. drone program in Pakistan’s tribal regions, which target the militants who terrorize and kill local residents, and who attack American soldiers inside Afghanistan. Ironically, the anti-war group CODEPINK — members of which visited Pakistan last week to protest drone strikes — along with much of the American left, the Pakistani establishment, and the Taliban are all on the same side in their opposition to drone strikes. While silent on the many more targeted killings of innocent civilians by Taliban militants in the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Pakistani establishment and the American left both loudly criticize U.S. drone strikes, albeit for different reasons.

Pakistani officials cite Pakistan’s sovereignty as their main justification for opposing drone strikes. But sovereignty is neither the actual reason for their anger, nor is it a legitimate argument against drone strikes. The actual reason is that the United States blames Pakistan for its failure to clear militants out of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. FATA serves as a base for militants and is therefore the target of drone strikes. In return, Pakistan uses anti-drone campaigns to stir up anti-Americanism through the media and insists on its national sovereignty over FATA.

Pakistan’s sovereignty claim itself is completely invalid. Pakistan does not now nor has it ever had a complete sovereign control — as modern nation-states define the term — over FATA. In fact, it is precisely Pakistan’s lack of sovereign control over FATA that allows the militants, many of whom are not Pakistanis, to operate so openly there and invite drone strikes. And that is the best case scenario for Pakistan; the worst case, many believe, is that Pakistan houses and trains these militants in FATA. Indeed, we just saw a fitting example of Pakistan’s lack of sovereignty over FATA last week. An anti-drone march to the FATA area of Waziristan on October 7 led by Pakistan’s leading politician, Imran Khan, and accompanied by CODEPINK members, failed to reach Waziristan. The march was halted when the Pakistan security forces could not guarantee the safety of the participants. Moreover, there is at least some evidence that the drone attacks are taking place with Pakistan’s consent. If the Pakistani government was seriously against drone strikes, it could take a number of actions against the United States, including blocking the NATO supply route that goes through Pakistan, the way it did in late 2011 when NATO forces mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two military posts near the border with Afghanistan.

For CODEPINK and the American far left, the opposition to drone strikes rests on the idea that drones kill innocent civilians. The recently published "Living Under Drones," a report based on 130 interviews with family members of drone strike victims, studied the negative impact of drone strikes on civilians. But the debate on the drones’ effectiveness and its impact on civilians is far from settled. For example, a February 2012 investigation by the Associated Press, which interviewed people inside FATA, reported that civilian casualties from drones are far lower than Pakistan civil society figures, journalists, and party officials assert publicly. Another study, relying on open-source data on reported U.S. drone strikes and terrorist activity in FATA between March 2004 and 2010, also found a negative correlation between drone strikes and militant violence. The strikes have also killed high-level Taliban leaders, like Baddrudin Haqqani and Baitullah Mehsud, and key Al-Qaeda militants, like Abu Kasha Al-Iraqi and Saleh Al-Turki. The New America Foundation estimates that around 84% of the people killed in drone strikes from 2004 to the present were al-Qaeda or Taliban militants. The drone accuracy rose to an amazing 95% in 2010.

It is perhaps for these reasons that polls show that the residents of FATA, who are the target of drones, are less opposed to drones than the rest of Pakistanis who are not the target of drones. FATA residents are eight times more supportive of drones than are the rest of Pakistanis.  Moreover, a mere 48% of FATA residents believe that drones kill innocent civilians, compared to 89% of people in the rest of Pakistan. Surveys consistently find that FATA residents fear bomb blasts by Taliban and the Pakistani military more than they do drone strikes. According to the Community Appraisal and Motivation Program (CAMP), a Pakistan-based research group, when asked open-ended questions about their greatest fears, very few FATA residents ever mention drones. Even the Peshawar Declaration, a conference organized and attended by leaders of these tribal areas, showed strong support for drone strikes.

That being said, there is little doubt that civilians have died in drone attacks. But that just raises the bigger question: is there a better alternative to drone strikes for counterterrorism in northwest Pakistan? To answer that question, we can look to the Swat Valley, just north of Waziristan, where 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban militants last Tuesday for advocating for girls’ education.

Swat, like Waziristan, has been a stronghold of the Taliban. But unlike Waziristan, Swat has not seen any drone strikes. Instead, in Swat, the only available alternative approach was taken.  For much of 2007 and 2008, the people of Swat were left at the mercy of the Taliban, who operated with impunity and killed, tortured, wounded, and displaced countless people. Then, after being pressured by the United States, the Pakistani military entered Swat and conducted an operation to root out the Taliban. The military operation resulted in thousands of deaths, many more wounded, and over one million people displaced, with a quarter million refugees crammed into mere 24 camps — the worst crisis since Rwanda in 1994, according to the United Nations. The operation also resulted in the destruction of hundreds of schools and egregious human rights violations by the Pakistani military – some of which I witnessed personally. By comparison, there are far fewer cases of displacement, civilian deaths, and other destruction in Waziristan where drone strikes are used.

Nevertheless, by yet another comparison of hypocrisy, those who are loudest about casualties from U.S. drone strikes have rarely protested the far higher numbers of civilian casualties as a result of Pakistan Army operations or Taliban violence in the Swat Valley and FATA. Silenced in this double standard are the varying motives of different parties as well as the voice of the Pashtun people in these tribal areas. At least one voice — that of this native Pashtun — is speaking out to say that there are serious downsides to these drone strikes, but they may be a necessary evil and the lone option to combat those who are responsible for the severe suffering of our people – like Malala Yousafzai.

Zmarak Yousefzai practices national security litigation in Washington, DC for an international law firm. He was born and raised in the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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