US drone strikes in Pakistan have been an unmitigated disaster. They have catalysed public opinion like no other set of events – except perhaps the Raymond Davis Affair – and produced a profound antipathy towards America. The people of Pakistan today feel deeply inimical towards the US. Every strike in which innocent lives are lost such as the one last Friday, deepens the well of resentment. The drone strikes play directly into the hands of the very extremists they are supposed to be targeting, and are seen by a battered public as cruel aggression. For a majority of people in Pakistan, this does not feel in any way like ‘their’ war, but rather the opposite. Reshaping those perceptions is a mammoth task. Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir has been in Washington debating the strategic partnership between us and the USA, and has pointed once again to the unsought consequences of the drone strikes.
It may be coincidental but the news that the Americans have stopped using the Shamsi airbase in Balochistan from which many of the drone strikes are thought to have been launched has come at an interesting juncture – and presents an equally interesting conundrum. Nobody is saying when or why they stopped using it after almost a decade, or whether they stopped of their own volition or at our request. If drones were flown from there with our compliance and they took off and landed in our territory, then we were ‘partners’ to a deal. However, if Shamsi is no longer being used then where are the drones flying from? Is there another base that we rent to Uncle Sam, or could it be that the drones are flying from outside our borders in which case there would appear to be a de-facto violation of said borders. Our relationship with Uncle Sam has been far too loose and poorly defined. It needs to be tightened; we may need to work with the Americans but not as the step-‘n-fetchits eternally tugging our forelocks in deference. The US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman is here later this week and Hillary Clinton is due in May. Admiral Mullen has been and gone. Much talking that must translate into action is going to have to be done. Perhaps the Davis affair has paradoxically been the key to breaking the impasse, and allowed us to assert ourselves like we have not previously and for the Americans to begin to understand that we are not there to be pushed around as they please. It is entirely possible that we can renegotiate the nature of our ‘partnership’, and a change in the way drones are deployed and used is a part of that. The status-quo is unacceptable and the civilian casualty figures even more so. For the Americans to continue to use drones as they are currently, they are doing no more than creating a giant storage battery of extremism that will fester for a generation or more. Is an empty Shamsi a harbinger of change or no more than a sharp bit of footwork? We suspect the latter but eternally hope for the former.