The Drone Signature

By Saad Hafiz

Drones have been a popular topic of late, mostly in discussions about whether the US government should be authorized to track down and kill suspected terrorists anywhere around the globe using the pilot-less predators. Amidst the passionate debate, the much vilified drones have become the signature weapon in the post-9/11 anti-terrorist warfare, particularly in the al-Qaeda and Taliban safe havens straddling the Afghan-Pakistan border. US drones have proven to be quite effective and a much-needed instrument of attack in the war against the terrorists. Drone strikes have taken out key leaders, disrupted meetings and curtailed movement, often forcing terrorists to scurry for cover. Drone enthusiasm is driven by the minimization of the risk to ground forces and non-combatants. Opponents counter that drones are an ignoble and cowardly form of combat and a further expression of the west’s depravity.

Drone strikes have been a sore point with the public and Pakistani politicians for some time. They have been described as counterproductive and a violation of sovereignty, producing unacceptable civilian casualties and creating more terrorists. The mostly orchestrated groundswell of anti-drone emotion are part of a national trend supporting the Taliban and hating the Americans. That being said, the anti-drone debate in Pakistan has taken an insidious and nonsensical turn recently. Drone strikes are being described as the root cause of terrorism in the country. A commentary on drones in a national daily said: “It is an extremely important issue because drone strikes have killed thousands of innocent Pakistani citizens and have brought the country to the absolute edge of political, social, economic and cultural destruction.”

The threat posed by homegrown terrorism, serious economic and energy issues to Pakistan’s existence far outweighs any danger posed by US drones. It is also disingenuous to suggest that drone warfare is the cause of the growing polarization and societal chasms in Pakistan, which has deep historical roots. Pakistan’s saga has been largely shaped by state and elite control over society, spearheaded by the military, state bureaucracy and obscurantist forces. The elites came to see the rest of society as backward and incapable of participating in modern life and politics. Religion gained a special place, exploited by the state and the elites as the anti-modernist national super glue. Against this background, it is perhaps no surprise that the terrorists and their fellow travelers are seen as the ‘uncompromising good guys’ locked in an existential and heroic struggle against the elites, especially the military and its US patrons. This may also explain why the ‘courageous’ terrorist leadership rarely gets the condemnation in the media and society it deserves, in spite of controlling the ‘human’ drones or suicide bombers that regularly target innocent Pakistanis.

Despite its public stance, it appears that Pakistan and its security services are quietly supporting the drone programme as part of the counterinsurgency operations against the Pakistan Taliban. Drone strikes have surely thinned the ranks of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and reduced pressure on Pakistani forces fighting the TTP. The Pakistani military has probably chosen not to go public with its support for drones because it cannot be seen as a force that could not take on the domestic terrorists without outside help. It would have been helpful if the military had taken the lead in publicly articulating the military benefits of drones, which have far outweighed the cost. By keeping its support private, the military has contributed to making Pakistan once again look duplicitous, weak and foolish not just on drones but on terrorism in general. This insults the sacrifices of the many brave officers and men who have lost their lives or been maimed fighting the terrorists.

Drone warfare continues to raise troubling moral and ethical questions due to the civilian casualties and absence of due process. Without judicial review or informed public debate, the potential for abuse and overreach is vast. The other aspect is that terrorism is ultimately a political problem that cannot be resolved by endless campaigns of assassination. Drone strikes should be considered one tactic, used extremely rarely, in an overall strategy that addresses the full range of threats. The best long-term strategy to deal with violent extremism is to ensure the success of democratic institutions and by strengthening the military and security apparatus. However, simply removing the threat of drones is not the answer either as that will only provide relief to the terrorists with no tangible benefit in return. Continuing to degrade and disrupt terrorist capabilities through selective drone strikes remains a key tool against acute terrorist threats. Pakistan’s leadership must learn to make decisions based not on fear, but hard-earned wisdom that peace and stability can only be attained from a position of strength. It may be good policy to signal peaceful intentions but it cannot be at the cost of allowing the domination of one barbaric group over the rest of society.

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