ISLAMABAD: In a clear departure from the policy of his predecessors, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif firmly stands his ground to demand a quick halt to the CIA operated predator strikes on Pakistan’s tribal belt when he meets US President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday.
Just four days before this crucial meeting, a new report from a special UN investigator said drone strikes have killed far more civilians than US officials have publicly acknowledged - at least 400 in Pakistan - and chides the US for failing to aid the investigation by not disclosing its own figures.
The consistent arguments given by the Nawaz Sharif government against the unmanned aerial strikes during meetings with top US officials have so far fallen on deaf ears as Washington is not prepared to change its policy on the premise that it was more beneficial and productive.
Apart from his own solid stance against the remotely piloted aircraft attacks, the prime minister is also under immense pressure at home to get the attacks stopped at once. This demand figures high on his agenda of talks with the American president.
The outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) with which the government plans to engage in talks has also repeatedly stressed that the predator strikes should be brought to an end, and the government should play its role in this connection.
A US embassy cable released by the WikiLeaks had revealed that Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani allowed drone strikes in the tribal areas saying they would protest the attacks in the National Assembly and then ignore them.
According to it, when Interior Minister Rehman Malik advised the US to hold off “alleged predator attacks until after the Bajaur operation”, Gilani brushed off the remarks saying: “I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.”
The statements were reportedly made during meetings with unnamed US officials in August 2008. The WikiLeaks cables also showed bureaucrats supporting drones viewing them as a viable solution to loosening Taliban’s grip over the tribal region.
Several resolutions unanimously passed by the parliament and all parties conferences (APCs) have condemned the US for the unmanned aerial strikes and stressed that they should be terminated.
Before departing for Washington to begin the official visit to the US, the prime minister said he will tell President Obama that drone attacks violated Pakistan’s sovereignty and independence and as an ally the US must immediately halt them inside Pakistan. He said Pakistan has a clear policy on these strikes. “There is no illusion about this policy; we believe drones challenge Pakistan’s sovereignty. We consider drone strikes as an attack on our independence; these attacks go against Pakistan’s interests. This should stop.”
In his September 27 speech to the UN General Assembly in New York, Nawaz Sharif said the use of armed drones is a continued violation of Pakistan’s territorial integrity. It results in casualties of innocent civilians and is detrimental to Pakistan’s resolve and efforts to eliminate extremism and terrorism from the country. He said he has urged the US to cease predator strikes so that we could avert further casualties and suffering.
Not only has the Nawaz Sharif government forcefully spoken against the drone assaults, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has also been critical of them. “The use of unmanned aerial vehicles must be controlled by international law. As I have often said, the use of armed drones, like any other weapon, should be subject to longstanding rules of international law, including international humanitarian law.
This is the very clear position of the United Nations. Every effort should be made to avoid mistakes and civilian casualties.”UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson, who issued the “interim” report on October 19, said the US had created “an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency.” He did not accept that considerations of national security justify withholding statistical and basic methodological data of this kind.
US intelligence officials have consistently downplayed the number of civilian deaths from drone strikes. In a June 2011 speech, White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, who is now CIA director, said that “for nearly the past year, there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency [and] precision” of US counter-terror strikes.
According to Emmerson, the Pakistan government provided him with new casualty numbers for strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the US government has targeted al-Qaeda operatives and their associates since 2004. While acknowledging the difficulty in compiling precise figures, he stated that Pakistani officials confirmed “at least 400 civilians had been killed as a result of remotely piloted aircraft strikes and a further 200 individuals [killed] were regarded as probably non-combatants.”
He added that Pakistani officials said those figures were likely to be an underestimated, due to “under-reporting and obstacles to effective investigation.”