PAKISTAN: THE BIG DRONE DEBATE
The dust has barely had time to settle on the compound in the city of Abbottabad, Pakistan where Bin Laden was allegedly assassinated by Navy Seals earlier this week, when the US once again launched a drone attack on North Waziristan. Drones (unmanned aircraft) are used for surveillance and target killing of insurgents (Taliban and Al Qaeda) in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) by the US military. The Associated Press reported the deaths of 15 people in the latest incident including militants and at least one civilian as missiles damaged a restaurant and a nearby home.
America is encroaching on ever more dangerous territory entering Pakistani airspace with talk of the possibility that future drones may now be targeted for destruction by the Pakistan Air Force.
Last month Pakistanis gathered near Peshawar (capital of north western Khyber Paktunkhwa) in their droves to participate in a sit-in protest against the use of drones, an event initiated by former cricketer Imran Khan (58) leader of Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) political party. There is a growing anger over the number of civilian casualties resulting from drone strikes. In actions resembling a video game, America launches its weapons of “not so well targeted” destruction bearing names such as “Predator” and the ever grim “Reaper” on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region (AfPak) with aptly named Hellfire missiles. They certainly live up to their description wreaking destruction on villages across the region… however, since when has a 5 year old girl ever been identified as an insurgent!
Photos of the victims are emotive, three children lain side by side awaiting burial, a young boy minus two legs and an eye asking “why me”? The reality is, the people of FATA are stuck between a rock and a hard place, the Pakistan Army fighting the militants on one side and insurgents with a history of blowing up schools and target killing on the other. On top of that there is poverty and displacement due to the ongoing conflict. This article on Global Voices, Pakistan: The Fight Against The Taliban And The Drones captures the fear of being caught in the midst of such conflict and describes how boys as young as 14 often from impoverished backgrounds fall into the hands of Taliban, believing suicide attacks are the only route to paradise http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/04/24/pakistan-the-fight-against-the-taliban-and-the-drones/
I asked a source recently why he thought Taliban carry out target of civilians in the Tribal Areas… the answer was surprising… There were allegations that the CIA were paying local people for intelligence on the ground and that they were placing tracking “chips” in houses where there were no Taliban just to receive money. There is no way of knowing whether this is fact or propaganda and the Taliban are feared for their brutality but if it were correct, intelligence services exploiting people in such conditions of poverty would an act of extreme cruelty and immorality.
The issue of drones has become symbolic of political weakness in the country to many, the anger is not simply about deaths, there are those who feel that the Pakistan government is bowing to outside pressure from the U.S. and remains stuck in a “colonised” mindset. WikiLeaks (whistleblower website) highlighted cables from former US Ambassador to Islamabad, Anne Patterson, revealing that during a 2006 meeting with Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, Pakistani prime minister, he brushed aside concerns about the use of Predator drones against targets in the Tribal Areas… this does not go down well with the people http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/wikileaks/8172922/Wikileaks-Pakistan-privately-approved-drone-strikes.html
Khan and his followers appear to have had enough of complacency and as a result of their sit-in were able to temporarily block supply convoys ferrying goods to North Atlantic Organization Treaty (NATO) troops in Afghanistan. Truckers also joined the protest parking up their tankers and trailers in solidarity with the ordinary civilians of Pakistan. Speaking to DAWN, Ashraf Khan Khalil, senior vice president of Sahar Good Transport had this to say, “we are Pakistanis and have the same feelings like others against the killing of innocent people in drone attacks. We are ready to even support a strike longer than two days”.
Hundreds of drivers and cleaners are known to have lost their lives on the treacherous route from Karachi to Afghanistan as they are subjected to attacks along the way, with their vehicles often torched. To add insult to injury, drivers then have to allegedly pay bribes to border police. Khan has vowed to continue his mission to halt drone attacks declaring that he and fellow protestors “would block supplies for NATO in other areas if drone attacks are not stopped within one month.” They would also take their protest in a “long march” to Islamabad.
The result of the two days protest was the Peshawar Declaration as detailed below:-
April 24, 2011
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf congratulates the people of Pakistan for their massive participation which is a reflection of the nation’s consensus that demands an end to the murderous drone attacks resulting in innocent loss of life characterized by the UN as extra judicial killings. The momentous Peshawar Dharna was the first public show of resolve on the road to regaining Pakistan’s lost sovereignty.
At the conclusion of the Dharna the people unanimously, by a show of hands, passed the Peshawar Declaration which demands of the Government of Pakistan the following:
- To immediately implement the joint resolution of Parliament on the “War on Terror.”
- To end the hippocratic double faced policy and bring before parliament all past and present agreements/understandings with the US government on the “war on terror.”
- The PTI demands of the Supreme Court to urgently hear the drone attacks petition filed by the PTI and hold a judicial inquiry under the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to ascertain the legitimacy of the drone attacks under our Constitution and also determine the scale of human loss and establish scope of compensation to the victims and their families.
- To ensure immediate access of media and human rights organizations to FATA to independently assess the human and material losses suffered by the people due to the drone attacks.
- The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf also demands of the Supreme Court to urgently hear the petition filed by the PTI regarding the drone attacks.
In case drone attacks continue and these demands are not met by the government, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf demands:
- The resignation of this government which has failed to protect the life and liberty of its citizens, and
- The PTI shall with the support of the people block all supply routes of NATO trucks to Afghanistan
During the protest there were simultaneous messages of support calling for further action on Twitter and social networking site Facebook and group pages springing up with an anti-drone message. There was also a demonstration at Syracuse’s Hancock Airforce Base with activists draped in white cloth splurged in red paint to resemble blood. The protest was organised by the Upstate Coalition to Ground The Drones and End The Wars. Channel 9 detailed 37 arrests naming the demonstrators. Shelley Lovelace, one of those involved gave her reason for participating, “I’m part of this because I believe that war is never a good idea, but I believe that making it seem easy and remote makes it all the more dangerous – not only to the people who we’re dropping bombs on but also to the people who are choosing to drop the bombs.”
A recent internal study by the Ministry of Defence stated that, “the growing use of unmanned aircraft (drones) in combat situations raises huge moral and legal issues, and threatens to make war more likely as armed robots take over from human beings” Guardian 17th April 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/17/terminators-drone-strikes-mod-ethics Nowhere can this dilemma be demonstrated more clearly than in the border areas of AfPak. Drones are operated remotely from Creech airbase, Nevada and other sites dividing observers and bringing into question issues of military funding, target killing of alleged militants, the accidental killing of civilians known as “collateral damage”, sovereignty (who is accountable for authorising unmanned aerial vehicle attacks, (UEVs) and more recently legal issues regarding compensation for victims. (A brief history of the use of drones can be found in the recent article by Ayesha Zee Khan, Drones: Death and Destruction in the Islamabad Times… http://www.islamabadtimesonline.com/drones-death-and-destruction/ )
Syed Saleem Shahzad, my colleague at website Asia Despatch, highlighted the case of the first litigant Karim Khan who lost both his son, 18 year old Zain Uddin and brother Asif Iqbal (32) after his home in North Waziristan came under fire. Salem has interviewed both Karim and his lawyer, Barrister Shahzad Akbar and was informed that a legal notice has been issued to American authorities for compensation of $500 million dollars.
The American administration argues that drones attacks are necessary and have proven successful in destroying militant targets and weakening leadership. There have certainly been notable deaths including Baitullah Mehsud, former leader of the Pakistan Taliban and Qari Hussain Mehsud among the founding members of Tehrik- e –Taliban (TTP) who ran a group suicide squad commonly known in militant ranks as Ustad – e – Fidayeen, trainer of the suicide bombers. (He was known for his ruthlessness and was also alleged to have trained child suicide bombers). According to Asia Times Online, “the frequency of the operations against Qari Mehsud were said to have increased after the deadly suicide attack he helped orchestrate on Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost.” http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/LJ27Df02.html
The death of Qari Mehsud was recently discussed with Ihsanalluh Tipu Mehsud, journalist at Asia Despatch, who was told on condition of anomynity by a member of the Taliban that “we couldn’t announce his death in order to avoid a possible downturn within our ranks as we were in preparation to take on security forces in Mehsud inhabited South Waziristan.” It appears though that however many insurgents are killed there are always more willing recruits to take their place. The Americans are quick to announce fatalities to justify the use of drones and do sometimes hit the intended targets. Hamza Ameer, Asia Despatch recorded that 17 insurgents were killed in one day alone as they “targeted vehicles and compounds carrying alleged militants who may be belonging to Haqqani network, a group declared as the greatest threat by the United States, operating inside Pakistan tribal areas bordering Afghanistan” http://www.asiadespatch.com/2010/12/2340/ However the Americans missed the mark with their strike against prime target Hakimullah Mehsud, current leader of the TTP who “rose from the dead” last year and later popped up defiant in a video ordering the execution of Colonel Imam, commando- guerrilla warfare specialist said to have been close to Mullah Omar, spiritual leader of the Taliban.
The Guardian reported David Cameron in December claiming that “British drones had killed 124 insurgents in Afghanistan since June 2008” and hailed them as a “classic example of a modern weapon which is necessary for today’s war”. Figures suggest that 18 out of 20 people killed in drone attacks are in fact civilians. President Barak Obama has surpassed his predecessor George W. Bush by increasing the number of strikes and consequently the number of civilians that have been “accidently killed” in the Tribal Areas has risen. One case which drew widespread condemnation from both civilian and military leadership was an attack on a jirga (meeting of tribal leaders) in the Nevi Ada Shega region of North Waziristan where 40 civilians lost their lives. DAWN reported that, “Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has strongly condemned the drone attack and said it will only strengthen hands of radical and extremist elements” and that “such an irrational behaviour negatively impacts efforts to separate militants from peaceful and patriotic tribesmen of the areas” http://www.dawn.com/2011/03/18/rare-condemnation-by-pm-army-chief-40-killed-in-drone-attack.html
The Pakistan military seems divided on the issue. Pakistan Army Chief, General Asfaq Kayani went on record condemning the jirga attack which killed more than three dozen people including tribal elders. On the other hand, Major General Ghayur Mehmud, GOC 7TH Division North Waziristan has recently produced a leaflet for journalists… the Myths and Rumours about US Predator Strikes labelling two points “1) A majority of those killed by drone strikes are hardcore Taliban or Al Qaeda elements, especially foreigners, ‘while civilian casualties are few’. 2) By scaring the local populations and compelling displacement through migration, drone attacks create social and political blowbacks for law enforcement agencies http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=42073&Cat=9&dt=4/17/2011 Such actions are likely to fuel speculation once again as to who is the paymaster and who is the servant.
I doubt that this information leaflet would impress shepherd Reshan Khan who lost 15 members of his extended family that were blown to pieces in a drone attack. DAWN reported that, “he stares into the distance blankly when asked to describe that day. His brother, Mulaqat, has to recount the tragedy because he is still too traumatized, to speak at length”….The newspaper described how “shortly after the strike, the 52-year-old father of six sunk into a deep depression and lost alarming amounts of weight. Then he started imagining things.”
There is a sense that the situation is coming to a head with the recent visit of Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Military in the Pakistani capital Islamabad for talks with the Pakistani leadership. High on the agenda was US drone strikes and the use of covert CIA operatives in the region following the Raymond Davis case. Davis, a CIA contractor shot dead two Pakistanis in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi after they allegedly tried to hijack his car. There was outrage throughout the country when the relatives of victims accepted blood money and a certain irony felt that the US were happy to adopt aspects of Sharia law when it suited them.
There has been one move from the US under mounting criticism and that was to withdraw military personnel from Shamsi airbase in Balochistan which is said to be a base for launching attacks against insurgents… however it is argued that the US can simply move operations outside of Pakistan’s borders without ceasing its mission to kill.
Mullen has warned the American people that this year will be a tough year in Afghanistan and that the Taliban has stepped up operations and there could be significant losses for troops http://tribune.com.pk/story/153011/mullen-to-raise-spy-concerns-with-pakistan-top-brass/ Protestors in the US are also raising questions regarding the cost of war operations at a time of cutbacks and a tightening of belts.
There are worries too from Pakistanis that their government may now have purchased the technology to launch its own drone attacks in which case the strikes could continue and the US military would still in a sense be in a position of control by pressurising the Pakistan government to carry out target killing by proxy to suit their agenda for the “war on terror”. Not much comfort there then for villagers in the tribal regions to learn that they could now be killed by Pakistani owned drone technology as opposed to American weaponry…So what do ordinary people want?…The cry over and over again that I hear is for a quiet existence. They want the swift withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and for American to stop entering Pakistani airspace (with or without support from Pakistani authorities). Quite simply they want a NO DRONE ZONE!
Carol Grayson is Director Co-ordination Asia Despatch and a UK researcher /campaigner on global health/human rights awarded ESRC Michael Young Prize 2009