Drone attacks - where do we stand? Rahimullah Yusufzai - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=38778&Cat=9

There has been a policy shift by the government regarding the victims of US drone attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). It isn’t a major change and is apparently a one-time decision aimed at calming the people enraged by the repeated missile strikes by the CIA-operated Predator and Reaper planes in Pakistani territory and the civilian casualties that are caused in these targeted killing raids.

For the first time since June 2004 when the US drones started attacking suspected militants’ hideouts in the Pakistani tribal areas, the government has decided to compensate the victims of the most recent missile strike that killed 45 civilians and caused injuries to another 50 in North Waziristan’s Dattakhel area on March 17.

The decision cannot compensate the precious lives that were lost or stop the bereaved families from thinking of ways to avenge the deaths. The compensation of Rs300, 000 for the dead and Rs100, 000 for the injured also is meagre, but this is the amount that the government normally gives to civilians killed and wounded in acts of terrorism. More importantly, the government by deciding to compensate the victims of the drone attack sent a clear message to the US and the international community that civilians were being harmed in these aerial strikes. It was also evidence of the fact that the US-manufactured unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) despite an awesome reputation weren’t that accurate. The use of airpower, whether jets, gunship helicopters and drones, in populated areas invariably causes ‘collateral damage’ and in most cases isn’t the proper way in counter-terrorism operations. Armies employ airpower to avoid casualties of their soldiers on the ground or because they lack manpower and are required to operate in remote and forbidding terrain. But in the process of using excessive airpower there is the risk of causing too many civilian deaths and alienating the population whose support is need in isolating and defeating the militants and the terrorists.

The decision to offer compensation to the victims came in the wake of strong-worded statements by President Asif Ali Zardari and the Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani condemning the Dattakhel drone strike. General Kayani termed the deaths of innocent tribesmen including elders and children in the attack as inhuman, gave an assurance to the tribes people in Waziristan that they would be protected and in a way chided the US that this was no way to fight the war against terrorism.

After having conceded that the dead were innocent, the next logical step for the government was to compensate the families who lost members in the drone strike or had someone injured. This is what the government has been doing all these years in case of victims of terrorist attacks including suicide bombings. One could, therefore, draw the conclusion that the drone attack by the US on innocent tribesmen holding a jirga in the open to resolve a local dispute was an act of terrorism. In fact, an attack by any power or organisation in which civilians are killed, injured and maimed is a terrorist act. It is also a war crime although bringing the lone superpower to justice is impossible. In America’s undeclared war against Pakistan and in the one next door in Afghanistan that has been declared and sanctioned by the UN, there have been many other incidents of human suffering that border on war crimes. The list of atrocities committed by terrorists and militants operating in this region should be longer and bloodier, but non-state actors don’t accept any law or principle. States and professional armies need to do better in keeping with their claims and accept accountability in case their actions cause innocent deaths and war crimes.

There was no way the government and the military could have ignored the March 17 US drone strike in North Waziristan like the previous 232 or so attacks that have taken place in Pakistan in the past seven years. It was a shut and open case as a tribal gathering had been attacked and civilians had been killed. Failure to condemn the drone strike could have threatened the fragile peace accord still holding in North Waziristan and triggered attacks against the government and the security forces. There were indications that the militants were preparing to launch attacks after threatening to unilaterally undo the peace accord. The Hafiz Gul Bahadur-led militants have always hurled such threats and often forced the government to back down. Missiles were reportedly fired at the army camp in Miranshah, headquarters of North Waziristan, after a long gap. These were warning shots that prompted the local peace committee and grand jirga to initiate hectic efforts to prevent hostilities from breaking into open conflict. It seemed that the damage control exercise undertaken by the government and the North Waziristan tribal jirga had worked, for the time-being at least, but the situation could get out of hand any time. Demands by the US for active military operations by Pakistan in North Waziristan were still being made and the drone attacks could resume in due course of time. In any case, the US would want to create a situation to force Pakistan’s hand to launch a big military operation in North Waziristan.

The government policy on the US drone attacks in Fata is ambiguous. The decision to compensate the victims of the March 17 drone strike in North Waziristan doesn’t mean that the government and its armed forces would in future attempt to shoot down the intruding drones. Rather, the same old policy of publicly protesting the drone attacks and privately condoning the strikes would continue.

This policy has seen twists and turns starting from the rule of General Pervez Musharraf when the drone attacks were first launched in Pakistan. He unsuccessfully tried to own the attacks by claiming these were being undertaken by Pakistan’s security forces. He even claimed responsibility for the US drone strike on the madrassa in Bajaur in which 83 students and their teachers were killed by arguing that the place was bombed using Pakistan’s airpower as it was a militants’ training centre. Few believed him as Pakistan’s didn’t possess the missile-carrying drones and Musharraf had to stop making such claims. Besides, there was dangerous fallout of this policy. Musharraf’s claim for the attack on the madrassa led to a swift retaliation by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants when a suicide bomber killed 42 soldiers at the army training ground in Dargai not very far from Bajaur.

Subsequently, the government for a while kept quiet and then began protesting the US drone strikes. The protests were made on the grounds that the drone attacks violated Pakistan’s sovereignty and were counterproductive as the civilian casualties were radicalising not only the affectees but also others in the tribal areas and beyond. In recent years though, the protests by the government became milder and infrequent. In fact, the protests became subdued as the drone attacks increased in numbers and intensity. The big increase came with the election of President Barack Obama and the coming into power of the PPP in Pakistan. The WikiLeaks revelations in which the US diplomatic cables quoted both President Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani condoning the drone strikes confirmed something that many already believed.

Now that the president and the army chief have for the first time offered condolences to the families of those killed in the March 17 drone strike in North Waziristan and the dead and the injured are being compensated, isn’t it time to formulate a proper policy on the subject. The government needs to come clean on the US drone attacks because the issue won’t go away. The attacks could resume and there would be civilian casualties also. Militants too would get killed in these attacks and some of them would be on Pakistan’s own hit-list. Pakistan wants the US to transfer the drone technology to it and this means it acknowledges the efficacy of the drones. However, Pakistan’s military wants to use the drones itself instead of the US.

As things stand, one cannot expect any major change in Pakistan’s policy on the drone attacks. It seems civilian deaths would be condoled and compensated, but no effort would be made to stop US drone strikes.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahim yusufzai@yahoo.com

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