The mouse that roared - S Iftikhar Murshed - Monday, May 02, 2011

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On more than one occasion the editorial in an English newspaper published from Lahore has adopted a strong line on the need to put an end to US drone strikes, and recommended that in future the Predators should be shot down by the Pakistani air force. Only then would the country be able to win back its sovereignty which the incumbent and previous governments had surrendered to the Americans.

One is reminded of the 1955 Cold War satirical novel, The Mouse that Roared, by the Irish-American writer Leonard Wibberley. The story revolves around the tiny European duchy of Grand Fenwick tucked away in the Alps between Switzerland and France. The country proudly retains its pre-industrial economy, which is almost wholly dependent on the production and export of a particular brand of wine. However, an unscrupulous American winery starts making the same wine under a slightly modified brand name, and the economy of Grand Fenwick is crippled. The prime minister accordingly declares war on the US, even though his army is equipped only with bows and arrows.

The hope was that immediate defeat would soon bring in American largesse, as happened in the case of post-war Germany under the Marshall Plan, and this would enable the little country to rebuild its economy. Through a quirk of fate, the duchy ends up winning the war, and the world’s smallest country becomes a nuclear power but has no use for the bomb!

Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan has also raved and ranted against drone attacks and, like the prime minister of Grand Fenwick, has vowed to take on the US if the Predator strikes are not terminated within a month. During a two-day sit-in on April 23-24 in Peshawar’s Hayatabad suburb, an event in which an estimated 4,000 people participated, he declared that NATO supply routes to Afghanistan would be blocked “in different parts of the country.” If this did not result in the termination of drone strikes, thousands of his supporters would swarm Islamabad for a massive sit-in till the government firmly told Washington that it would no longer permit drone operations. In a flight of imagination he told his audience that “the American people will hold even bigger demonstrations if they come to know that innocent civilians are being killed in drone attacks.”

The same illusory predilection was in evidence when Imran Khan said during a television talk show on April 26 that 25,000 people had taken part in the Hayatabad sit-in. Whatever the actual number of participants, the event was conspicuous by the absence of tribal Pakhtuns although every very single drone strike has occurred in their areas. Experts who belong to the region, notably Farhat Taj, have no doubt that the Predator attacks are actually welcomed by the tribesmen because the targets are terrorist groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Al Qaeda and their foreign affiliates.

This is corroborated by statistics. There have been 236 drone attacks from June 1994 to April 19, 2011 and 95.7 percent of these have occurred since 2008. Computations carried out by think tanks reveal that 70 of these strikes have been against Maulvi Gul Bahadur’s group, 56 against the Haqqani network, 35 against Al Qaeda and its foreign offshoots, and 30 and 29, respectively, have hit the outfits of Mullah Nazir and Waliur Rehman. The remainder have been against various splinter groups.

These attacks have been fairly successful, according to Maj Gen Ghayur Mehmud, the GOC of the Pakistan army’s 7th Division. During a press briefing in North Waziristan on March 8, he said that the drone strikes had killed mostly “hardcore Taliban or Al Qaeda elements, especially foreigners” and the number of civilian fatalities had been “few.” A paper titled “Myths and Rumours about US Predator Strikes” was subsequently distributed among the journalists.

Nine days later, 45 tribesmen participating in a jirga were killed in a drone attack in Dattakhel, North Waziristan, and an ISPR press release of March 17 quoted the COAS, General Ashfaq Kayani, as “strongly condemning the Predator strike” which he said was “unjustified and intolerable under any circumstances.” Despite this, there has been no attempt by the Pakistani army to distance itself from Maj Gen Ghayur Mehmud’s March 8 statement.

To this extent, the army has been far more honest than the country’s civilian leadership in admitting it is mainly terrorists who have been killed in drone attacks, while at the same time conceding that there have regrettably also been a “few” civilian casualties. In this sense, it is to Imran Khan’s credit that at least he was bold enough to come out openly on this issue and was perfectly right in demanding, as he did at the Hayatabad demonstration, that “politicians should end their hypocrisy. They should either support drone strikes or oppose them openly. The government should end the dual policy on drone attacks.”

Two reasons are advanced for the emerging national consensus against drone strikes. The first is the unacceptable number of civilian casualties of around 2,200. However, if the army is to be believed, these deaths are mostly of terrorists. In contrast, according to The South Asian Intelligence Review, from 2003 to February this year the total number of fatalities caused by terrorist attacks is 33,213. In its report for 2010, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has claimed that there were 2,500 terrorist-related deaths in the country, and of these 1,160 were from suicide attacks. The figure continues to mount by the day in 2011, as is evident from last week’s three bomb attacks on buses of the Pakistan Navy.

The second, and more important, argument advanced is that drone attacks violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. This needs to be put in perspective. It is widely known that drones have been assigned specific airfields in Pakistan from where they take off and fly along pre-designated routes to the target areas. These flights through Pakistan’s airspace would not be possible without elaborate coordination with the local air-defence authorities. In the words of a former Pakistani air vice marshal, it is in this context that the “ill-informed hype that is expropriated to whip (up) a religious-nationalist frenzy on the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty” has to be seen. In other words, the country’s sovereignty can hardly be said to have been violated if the drone strikes have occurred with the consent and cooperation of the Pakistani government.

Pakistan’s sovereignty has certainly been compromised, but this has nothing to do with drone strikes. It is economic. The government is incurably addicted to a policy of “beg and spend.” Till there is radical reform, the country will remain in the shadow of servitude to foreign donors. The anticipated budget deficit for 2011-2012 is Rs950 billion, or 5.3 percent of the GDP. This is the biggest ever in Pakistan’s economic history and is likely to cross the trillion-rupee mark. The gap is being met by yet more external and internal borrowing as well as by printing more currency notes. In the process, the country would have forfeited whatever little remains of its sovereignty.

After World War II the British economy was shattered. There were severe shortages of food, fuel and all essential commodities. In the harsh winter of 1946, England’s greatest economist, John Maynard Keynes, told his countrymen: “We are a poor nation, and must learn to live accordingly.” This is a lesson that the leadership of Pakistan has never learnt.

The writer publishes the Criterion quarterly. Email: iftimurshed@

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