BACKGROUND: In 2001, when then President Musharraf responded to U.S. demands by abandoning the Taliban in Afghanistan and joining the global alliance against terrorism, Musharraf cited a number of reasons for his decision, among which the security of Pakistan and the Pakistani nation was of paramount importance. Over the years, Pakistan made invaluable contributions in the global campaign against Al-Qaida. Pakistan captured or played a significant role in the capture of a score of Al-Qaida operatives and in foiling numerous Al-Qaida cells and terror plots.
However, due to Islamabad’s alleged as well as widely believed ties to the Taliban and the Haqqani network, most of the power centers in the world, especially in the West, consider Pakistan to be part of the problem rather than the solution. It was this suspicion of Pakistan, along with a reluctance to put American lives at risk, which resulted in the U.S. reliance on drone warfare in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Drone strikes controlled and conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division started in 2004 under President Bush. Under the Obama administration, the use of drone strikes accelerated rapidly. According to several estimates, so far at least 375 drone attacks have taken place in which over 3,500 people have been killed and over 3,600 have been injured. Until 2011, drones were operating from the Shamsi airbase in Pakistan, which U.S. forces were using as part of an understanding reached between Presidents Musharraf and Bush.
The views are extremely divided on the legal and moral aspects of drone strikes. Those opposed consider it a violation of international law. Ben Emmerson, a senior UN official who led a team to Pakistan to investigate the issue, stated that the drone attacks violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. A related view is that drone strikes are counterproductive as they harden the resolve of the terrorists and further expands the recruitment base of militant organizations.
In response to the mounting global criticism, President Obama on May 29, 2013, stated that the drone strikes will continue. At the same time, he vowed to increase transparency and more careful targeting. A number of media reports indicate that the CIA uses a careful screening process when deciding to kill a person or a group through a drone strike. As early as March 2010, U.S. Department of State legal advisor Harold Koh said that the drone strikes are legal under the right of self-defense. Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Sharif stated several times during his election campaign that drone strikes are an attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty. However, the strongest opposition came from Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which is the ruling party in the strategic province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who said he would order the drones to be shot down once elected prime minister.
IMPLICATIONS: The effectiveness of the drone strikes could be gauged by the fact that before he was killed, Osama bin Laden reportedly was considering moving Al-Qaida operatives to the forested regions of Afghanistan so that they could not be targeted by drones. Despite repeated denials by Musharraf and the PPP government, it is now public knowledge that drone strikes were taking place in the tribal areas of Pakistan as part of the aforementioned agreement between Musharraf and President Bush. The Shamsi airbase was used for this purpose until U.S. forces were asked to vacate the base after the American attack on the Pakistani army post at Salala in 2011. Yet, the PPP government continued to protest against the drone strikes mostly for domestic political consumption without seriously addressing the issue with the U.S.
Recently, Al Jazeera leaked the Abbottabad commission report. According to media reports, General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, then director general of the ISI, told the commission that the drones certainly had their uses. He also stated that although there was no written agreement, there was a political understanding between the two countries on the issue of drone strikes. In addition, he said it was easier for Pakistan to refuse the strikes several years ago but that it was currently more difficult to do so, adding that the Americans had been asked to stop the strikes as they kill more civilians than terrorists.
Pakistan’s drone policy is not clear. The issue has been termed a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty that kills innocent civilian non-combatants, which results in further militant recruitments. The cynics are of the view that the drones are used to kill those who want to make peace with the state of Pakistan, citing a recent attack that killed Waliur Rehman, second in command of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It was believed that Rehman was in favor of negotiating with Pakistan for a peace settlement but soon after his death in a drone strike, TTP decided to withdraw its earlier peace talks offer. At the same time, it is a fact that Naik Muhammad and Baitullah Masud, declared enemies of the state of Pakistan were killed in drone strikes. A number of media reports have indicated that Islamabad has asked for drone technology from the U.S.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this debate is that drone strikes are a manifestation of American distrust of Pakistan’s Army. Unless this changes, the drone strikes will continue. The aforementioned September 2013 drone strike in Dargo Mandi in North Waziristan that killed Mullah Sangeen Zadran along with Abu Zubair Muzi, Abu Dajana Khurassani and Abu Bilal Khurassani, is a great blow to Al Qaeda, the Haqqani network and the TTP. Mullah Sangeen was considered to be an influential militant leader enjoying respect in militant groups throughout the AfPak region.
CONCLUSIONS: Pakistan-U.S. relations are going through a rough patch and a gulf of distrust is opening between the two. Pakistan has to play a significant role in the lead up to, during and after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Both countries consider the relationship important and need to maintain a meaningful engagement beyond war against terror. Islamabad has decided to take up the drone issue at the United Nations, although it is questionable what purpose this will serve other than a cosmetic gesture since it will be vetoed by the U.S. if raised at the Security Council. The death of Mullah Sangeen in North Waziristan is the latest indication of the fact that unless the safe haven for terrorists in the tribal areas is eliminated, the drone strikes will not end and this is where Islamabad needs to focus its energy. It is time that both countries work out a mutually beneficial solution to their problems by meaningful engagement. Drones are a major obstacle but one that should not be allowed to wreck the relationship.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Rizwan Zeb is an associate editor of Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs (to be launched in 2014 by Sage) and is based at the Center for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia. He is a former Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor at University of Bristol and visiting scholar at the India-South Asia Project, Foreign Policy Program, Brookings Institution. He recently guest edited a special issue of Journal of South Asian Development (Sage) on Afghanistan and the Region: Post 2014. He also lectured at RUSI, WA on Afghanistan: Post 2014.