Speaking at Peshawar’s Hayatabad town on April 24 at the conclusion of his party’s two-day protest ‘sit-in’ against continuing US drone attacks in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan argued that the politicians should shun hypocrisy and declare their support for or opposition to the missile strikes carried out by CIA-operated unmanned drones.
He is right in posing this question. Only a few political parties have taken a clear stand on this critical issue. Others prefer an ambiguous policy, just like the PPP-led coalition government that is publically critical of the drone attacks, but is known to privately condone the strikes. In his Peshawar speech, Khan also rightly asked the government to abandon its dual policy with regard to the US drone strikes. He pointed out that Pakistani rulers live in fear of the US and are, therefore, unable to articulate the aspirations of their people.
The ambiguity on the issue is not confined to politicians. Khan didn’t mention it but it is no secret that Pakistan’s powerful military too has an ambiguous policy on the Predators and the more advanced Reapers that rain death from the skies and carry out targeted killings in North Waziristan, South Waziristan and other tribal areas. It is another matter if the missiles mostly kill Pakistani militants fighting the state instead of the US-led coalition forces deployed across the border in Afghanistan. The known al-Qaeda figures killed by the drones in Pakistan during the past seven years are less than 20 and the number of Afghan Taliban from the Haqqani Network, being the prime target in North Waziristan, slain in such attacks could be counted on fingers.
How else could one explain the media briefing arranged by the army in North Waziristan on March 8 in which Maj Gen Ghayur Mehmud, the general officer commanding of the Pakistan Army’s Kohat-based 7th Division, justified the US drone strikes by claiming that a majority of those killed were hardcore Taliban and al-Qaeda members, especially foreigners, and that civilian casualties were few. Though he qualified his statement about the accuracy of the drone strikes by arguing that these also create social and political blowbacks for the law-enforcement agencies by scaring away the local population and causing displacement, it didn’t change the main thrust of his argument that US drone strikes were mostly eliminating militants in the region and only occasionally resulting in ‘collateral damage.’
Except one statement by the army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas in which he said that Maj Gen Ghayur Mehmud was quoted out of context, no effort was made by the military to clarify or disown the contents of his briefing. Seen together with the views privately expressed by certain civil and army officials on the issue of drone strikes, one gets the feeling that the media briefing and remarks made by Maj Gen Ghayur Mehmud by and large represented the opinion of Pakistan’s political and military top brass.
In fact, unnamed Pakistani security officials are the first ones to tell the media soon after every US drone strike in the tribal areas that so many militants including foreigners have been killed in the attack. They make such claims despite the fact that the security forces and the political administration have no access to the place of occurrence and their intelligence is largely limited to the intercepts of the militants communicating with each other.
This is clearly an effort to justify the drone attacks because in their view mostly militants, or ‘terrorists’ as some officials and sections of the media refer to them, get killed in the missile strikes. There is no known case since June 2004, when the US first started using the drones to attack militants’ targets in the Pakistani tribal areas, in which the government or its armed forces managed to access or control the place hit by the Hellfire missiles, secure possession of the bodies of those killed, conduct DNA tests or at least find their graves.
It is possible that the military would have pursued the same ambiguous policy had the March 17 drone attack in Dattakhel in North Waziristan not taken place a day after the controversial release of the CIA operative and killer of two young Pakistanis, Raymond Davis, in a blood-money deal facilitated by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). By killing 45 innocent tribesmen including children at a jirga convened in the open in keeping with tradition to discuss local issues, the US not only overstepped the mandate apparently given to it by Pakistan’s fearful ruling elite but also did something that exposed the myth that the drones are always on target. There was no way this incident could be kept hidden from the public view or justified and soon both political and military officials were condemning the attack in the strongest possible words.
Still, the government attempted damage-control – it didn’t take the extreme step of blocking the Nato supplies destined for Afghanistan as it did last year for 10 days when two Pakistani soldiers were killed in an attack by US gunship helicopters on a border post in Kurram Agency. If the Pakistani government had been firm in its opposition to the drone strikes, the US would have thought about the consequences and restrained itself from launching two more attacks in April 2011 in South and North Waziristan killing 35 persons including women and children.
With both the civil and military ruling elite unable to formulate a clear policy on the drone strikes and persuade the US to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty, it required courage on the part of Khan to take practical steps for condemning the drone strikes and blocking the trucks and oil-tankers transporting supplies for the Nato forces in Afghanistan, for two days. It was no doubt a token blockade and was organised in Peshawar instead of Karachi from where most Nato supplies are sent to Afghanistan via the Peshawar-Torkham and Quetta-Chaman routes. But the purpose was served and for the first time an important Pakistani politician came out openly to highlight the issue and give a month’s notice to the Pakistani government to stop US drone strikes or be prepared for a march on Islamabad by his party workers.
It is true that the PTI isn’t a big enough party to organise a march that would paralyse life in Islamabad and force the government to accept its demand. However, the cricketer-turned-politician has brought the drones issue into the public domain and prompted the Jamaat-e-Islami, JUI-F, JUI-S and PPP-Sherpao to support the PTI dharna against the US drone attacks. He also convinced three known politicians, PML-N’s Javed Hashmi, PML-Q’s Marvi Memon and ANP’s dissident lawmaker Khwaja Mohammad Khan Hoti, to break ranks with their parties and join him at the protest ‘sit-in’ camp in Peshawar. The PML-N, PML-Q and ANP, like most other political parties, oppose the drone attacks but the defiant participation of their own elected MNAs in the PTI protest would bring their leadership under pressure to take an unambiguous stand on the issue. As Javed Hashmi pointed out, the PML-N needed to take practical steps like the PTI to demonstrate its opposition to drone attacks.
The ambiguity on US drone strikes is understandable because top Pakistani Taliban commanders Baitullah Mahsud, Nek Mohammad, Haji Omar and possibly Qari Hussain along with certain al-Qaeda members fighting Pakistan’s security forces were killed by missiles fired by the CIA spy planes. The military couldn’t eliminate them despite carrying out operations in their mountainous strongholds. Also, the Pakistani government isn’t really opposed to the use of drones, though it would like the US to provide the technology for use by the Pakistani military to reduce the intensity of the public reaction to drone strikes.
The time has come for the Pakistan government to come clean on the issue of the US drone attacks. Due to its low credibility, not many Pakistanis believe the government when it voices opposition to the drone strikes. Imran Khan’s aggressive campaign might force the government and also the military to adopt a clearer and believable policy on this emotive issue.