No let up in drone strikes

By Asif Haroon Raja

The US has a long history of violating international law. Overthrowing elected governments, invading and occupying sovereign States, stoking and aiding insurgencies covertly, assassinating opponents, interning and torturing suspects in torture chambers, applying political, diplomatic, economic and military pressures are judronestified under the pretext of serving foreign policy objectives. Likewise drones are also validated on the plea of combating terrorism. Among the coercive techniques, drone is the latest instrument of persecution applied by USA under President Obama who has declared it as a choice weapon. Obama holds weekly meetings to decide which one to kill and which to spare from among the list put up to him by Pentagon and CIA. Once decision is taken, he signs the death warrants and CIA carries out the executions with joystick operated drones fitted with Hellfire missiles. In the calculation of Obama, all military-age males within the combat zone killed by drones are militants.

Major argument made by the proponents of drone war is that it helps in making the US troops stationed in Afghanistan safer. They say that drones are accurate and precise and hit militants only without putting the lives of American soldiers in jeopardy. They claim that dozens of high profile al-Qaeda militants were struck by drones. They also aver that common people in Waziristan do not dread drones but feel good to see militants dying. Opponents of drones challenge these contentions saying that strikes are neither accurate as claimed, nor the ISAF have become safe from Taliban attacks. They say that people of North Waziristan (NW) in particular which has borne the major brunt of drones have become nervous wrecks. They shoot down the US claims that drones are used in self-defence and are precise in targeting intended targets saying the wonky rationale lack logic and sagacity and hence unacceptable. They maintain that employment of drones is immoral and illegal, it endanger the lives of innocent civilians, violates sovereignty of independent country and also compromise international security as a whole.

FATA in Pakistan is the worst affected which has been hit by drones 330 times from 2004 to November 2013 incurring 2250 casualties. Majority of drone strikes took place in NW against Hafiz Gul Bahadar group, Haqqani network and late Waliur Rahman group followed in South Waziristan against late Maulvi Nazir group. Drones have not curbed but fuelled terrorism in Pakistan and have helped militant leaders to recruit larger number of fighters to fight Pak security forces, seen by them as mercenaries of USA. Above all, the militant groups like al-Qaeda and TTP have developed an inbuilt mechanism to quickly replace leaders killed in combat or by drones. Drones have also heightened anti-Americanism in the region.

The assassins carrying out extra judicial killings with the help of UAVs do not have any reliable means to distinguish between a militant and a civilian. Reliability of source providing intelligence remains in doubt. In most cases, reward money ($5000) lures and personal enmity propels the informers to get rich/settle old scores. This assumption draws strength from the prisoners detained in Guantanamo Bay, where 92% were innocent. After years of internment, 600 were released uncharged. There has not been a single strike in which civilians were not killed along with suspected militants. Deaths of civilians are covered up as collateral damage or on the plea that they were either sympathizers or protectors of militants. There have been number of incidents wherein rescuers rushing to evacuate the injured and the dead after the drone strike were struck by another drone, or people were hit when they were burying the dead. Counter Terrorism Adviser John Brennan sometimes back made an absurd claim that there has not been a single civilian casualty from drone hits.

There is growing international movement against drone war and with every passing day, the US credibility in international community is eroding. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter Terrorism Ben Emerson called for an independent investigation into each and every death that has resulted from drone strikes. Christophe Haynes submitted his study to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) raising concerns over the use of drones which he feels undermines international security and encourages more States and terrorist groups to acquire drones. He fears that drones may fall in wrong hands or may be hacked. His report was debated in UNGA on October 25, 2013, which called for respecting international laws. 17 out of 20 countries polled by PEW disapproved drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. 97% people in Pakistan, 63% in France, 59% in Germany, 89% in Egypt, 81% in Turkey consider drone strikes bad policy.

While the drone war trudges on, opposition continues to balloon up. Amnesty International, International Committee of Red Cross, civil society groups and Human Rights Watch are all questioning the legal basis for targeted killings and urging Obama restraint on use of drone. Protest groups in USA and Europe continue to demonstrate against use of drone. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), activists of Imran Khan led PTI in protest against a drone strike on a seminary in Hangu on November 21, which is a town within settled area of the province, have blocked movement of NATO containers along Torkham route by staging sit-ins at five points in KP. The sit-ins started on November 23 and are still continuing. Imran is demanding stoppage of drone attacks which he strongly feels are impeding peace talks with TTP. His party joined by his coalition partner Jamaat-e-Islami is staging protests singly and is not supported by the federal government or any other party. The second supply route via Chaman is open and operational.

A case against CIA director John Brenan and station chief Craig Osth in Islamabad has been registered by Hangu police on charges of waging war against Pakistan and  killing innocent civilians. Imran nudged the government to order PAF to hit US drones. Indian Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel during his visit to Islamabad has cautioned that military aid to Pakistan will discontinue in case the supply route is not opened and reiterated the US stance that drone strikes would continue. No assurance has so far been given that the US has any intention of halting drone attacks in the near future. It is indeed surprising that the US ceded ground in Afghanistan, Syria and Iran, but gives no room to Pakistan on the issue of drones.

Imran Khan and his party have taken a bold step to defy US unbridled belligerence. However, the time chosen to prolong blockade of supply route in my view is ill-timed. Forced by circumstances, the ISAF has now changed its posture from offensive to retrograde. Arms and ammunition are no more being pumped into Afghanistan to feed the ongoing war but military stores are being taken out of Afghanistan. While the troops will be flown out, defence equipment of 47 countries worth $7 billion lifted in 24000 containers and 20,000 vehicles is required to be transported by road in next 12 months. Undoubtedly, the two routes of Pakistan are the shortest and cheapest and hence preferred over longer and highly expensive northern network. Having nourished NATO’s war effort for 12 years, it will be folly to stop the outflow. Containers moving into Afghanistan mostly contain food and non-war items.

It must not be forgotten that Pakistan is bound by UNSC Resolution 1386 to provide logistic supply to ISAF in Afghanistan. US-Iran thaw has provided another avenue to US thereby considerably reducing dependence on Pakistan. Moreover, closure of Torkham route has deprived the truckers carrying NATO containers legitimate business, while the cash strapped government loses one million dollar daily. A loss of $20 million has already been incurred. Lastly, while analyzing pros and cons, it should be borne in mind that seven months closure of supply routes in the aftermath of Salala incident had brought no change in the attitude of USA. It managed to bear the extra cost. At this delicate stage when nothing is going in favor of Pakistan and Iran too has come in the loop of USA, prudence demands that conciliation rather than confrontation will fetch better results. At the same time, efforts on the diplomatic front should be doubled and rising anti-drone sentiments all over the world exploited.

The writer is a retired Brig, a defence analyst and columnist.

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