Necessary questions By Syed Talat Hussain - Monday 28th March 2011

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CONSUMED by the day-to-day politics of survival, the government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is oblivious to the many million-dollar questions staring Pakistan in the face.
One question relates to the possibility of more drone attacks of the type that killed almost 50 civilians in North Waziristan two weeks ago, bringing Pakistan’s relations with the US to the brink of rupture.
There is no serious debate that has followed the government’s perfunctory condemnation of that attack, and there is no evidence to suggest that any policy review is in the offing. This implies that if there is to be another drone hit or a series of them, the government would neither be prepared to tackle the consequences, nor would have a policy response ready.
This further means that the fallout of these attacks, say strong public reaction on the streets stoked by the opposition parties, will take place without anyone in the power corridors knowing what to do about it. Rage will overtake rational decision-making.
Here are a few questions that ought to form the framework of a serious, comprehensive and immediate debate on the issue of drones. The aim of this debate has to be to, one, prepare an appropriate response to the continuous violation of Pakistan’s air space, and, two, to inform the public about the stakes involved in tackling this.
The first aspect concerning drone attacks is whether or not the political leadership actually approves of them. If it does, what are the conditions under which it finds these attacks acceptable — for instance, was the action taken to kill Baitullah Mehsud okay?
If the drone strikes are to take out the militants most wanted by the law-enforcement agencies, would they be regarded as kosher? And if the political leadership thinks such strikes are a necessary evil, then what is a tolerable balance between the level of ‘evil’ and ‘necessary’? What if this balance changes (or has changed after the last attack) in favour of ‘evil’ as compared to ‘necessary’?
Put differently, what if the US kills more of ‘their’ wanted men and few of ‘our’ wanted men? Will this make the attacks completely useless from our point of view?
The second aspect is that if the government looks upon these attacks as purely evil, what are the reasons? Are these attacks imprecise? Is there an unacceptable level of collateral damage? If yes, why has the evidence from those dozens of attacks previously not been brought forth?
Also if the political leadership thinks that these attacks should not happen, what alternatives does it have to reach the militant groups on the basis of its own strength and eliminate their influence from the affected areas? All this needs to be clarified and substantiated with facts and evidence for the public and the world to know that Pakistan has a policy plan to address the threat in these areas.
But if the attacks don’t stop despite our urging what are the policy options? Can the air force shoot them down — actually, and not rhetorically? If not, then what else can be done to force the US to abandon the idea of using drones? And in case the US does abandon the drones what other options might it apply to achieve its objective of fighting out Taliban leaders, who, as per the allegation, retreat to Pakistani areas, recuperate and relaunch themselves in the battlefield?
How would we tackle the US policy of dealing with alleged sanctuaries, one that does not rely on drones and instead uses boots on the ground or sharp and limited ground incursions?
And assume (it seems like a fair assumption in the light of the recent attack) that the drones’ zone of operation is expanded, what are the areas where these might occur? And what if these were to hit not just vehicles and compounds but also the mosque-madressah combo or civilians?
How would the government pacify outraged public sentiment? How would the official reaction — which would then be beyond pacification through pro forma Foreign Office statements of condemnation — play itself out in mainland Pakistan?
Remember most religious parties, and those right of centre like Imran Khan’s have already positioned themselves for elections. Even the PML-Q is going back to its religious constituency for approval. What will the government do in the heat of the pressure? Will it stop supply lines?
What if the drones continue to happen even then? Will the army tell the nation that it is ready to fight to defend the borders provided the political government gives the go-ahead? Will the political government give the go-ahead? Will the ensuing scenario be an acceptable strategic situation? Will it serve the country’s long-term interests?
These and hundreds of other related questions need to be answered through the process of debate at every relevant political forum. The government needs to brace itself for the possibility of the hardening of CIA operations on Pakistani soil, and the spread of protests at home as a result. The lull after the last drone attack offers an opportunity to quickly do some serious thinking, as it will not last forever.
The writer is a senior journalist at DawnNews.

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