US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s magic word of “apology” in a July 3 phone call to Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar was good enough to reopen the land routes to the US-Nato forces occupying Afghanistan.
The American apology over the loss of valiant Pakistani soldiers is a vindication of Pakistan’s rightful stand and an acknowledgement of the inviolability of Pakistan’s sovereignty. The resolution of this thorny issue brought welcome relief for both the countries now looking forward to resuming broader talks on security cooperation, militant threats, aid and other issues.
Encouraged by the recent development, both Pakistan and the US have been able to put the recent difficulties behind so as to focus on the many challenges ahead. Among others, drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas are one of the contentious issues in the current challenges between Pakistan and the United States. Within a week of improving the US-Pak relations, a drone attack in North Waziristan area killed 20 people — most likely militants this time, but the message was obvious: the US intends to get back to business of “surgical operation” using unmanned drones on al-Qaeda’s high profile targets allegedly hiding in North Waziristan. The drone doctrine has far-reaching effect on domestic stability in Pakistan as it is playing into the hands of opposition parties and hard-line groups that are already inciting public opinion against the reopening of Nato supply routes.
Pakistan is demanding a complete stop to drone attacks as part of the new terms of engagement with the US, terming the same as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. In an article titled ‘Drones: Backfiring on US Strategy’, César Chelala warned the risks involved in the use of drones, which many law experts see as violating rules of war. While questioning the legal status of using unmanned aircraft, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has termed the drone attacks a clear violation of human rights. A recent Pew global poll suggests there is global opposition to the US drone campaign.
On the other side, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has implicitly defended Washington’s use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists. Likewise, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has recently responded to Pakistan’s demand by saying that the use of drones is essential for defending the Americans against the militants. Defenders of the policy say it provides a way of hitting high-profile targets, such as al-Qaeda number two, Abu Yahya al-Libi. Barack Obama recently claimed that the troops, who had fought the Iraq war, had “made the United States safer and more respected around the world”.
Drones’ proponents argue that since they have significant surveillance capacity and great precision, they are able to avoid collateral civilian casualties and injuries. They also state that since drones may provide the ability to conduct aerial surveillance and to gather “pattern of life” information, they may allow operators to distinguish between peaceful civilians and those engaged in direct hostilities.
For diplomats on both sides, the drone issue has become a puzzle of their relationship — with no easy solution. Some officials suggest that the diplomatic deadlock could be broken by sharing more information with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). There are more effective ways to go after terrorists inside Pakistan and that the Pakistan government officially condemns “unilateral” drone strikes on its territory. Pakistan is seeking ‘greater control’ over target selection and intelligence gathering — and not necessarily an end to the drone strikes. After all, the Pakistani government is fighting terrorists as well.
As a report last year by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) showed, of some 2,300 people killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 until August 2011, between 392 and 781 appear to have been civilians and 175 were children. Since 2004, 297 drone attacks have taken place in the tribal areas, mostly in South and North Waziristan (The Long War Journal). Undoubtedly, it has resulted in the elimination of the top al-Qaeda leadership and weakening of its organisational structure and coordination capacities, but thousands of innocent Pakistani civilians became subject to the indiscriminate killings.
Pakistan has offered the US a new mechanism encompassing ‘surveillance’ of targeted operations against wanted militants as an alternative to drone strikes in the country’s tribal regions. The plan involves both the identification of targets by the CIA in the tribal areas and swapping of information with the Pakistani security agencies. The Pakistan military will then deal with the situation accordingly, said officials familiar with the development.
To ensure that Pakistan acts on the information provided by the CIA, the United States can use any mechanism to monitor our operation on the ground. The United States can even use drones for this purpose, however, no foreign boots on the ground would be allowed for surveillance.
Pakistan has decimated most of the al-Qaeda elements and the threat has been relegated to bare minimum. As the breakthrough is welcome news for both sides with a promise for a harmonious road ahead, Pakistan’s chafing at US drone strikes will also be resolved amicably once the DG(I) held meaningful discussions with his counterparts in the upcoming visit to the United States.