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Islam and Politics ( 21 Feb 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Drone Strikes: Boon or Bane?

By Syed Irfan Ashraf

February 20, 2012

DURING a visit to Tank, a Mehsud tribesman surprised me with some blunt remarks. Supporting drone attacks in Fata, the young tribesman from South Waziristan Agency said, “We see in the drones our only hope to go back home.”

The rest of his tribal companions at the Tank Press Club were more restrained, but did not object to the IDP’s remarks.

Ever since top Taliban commander Nek Mohammad was killed in the first drone strike in 2004, the robotic war technology has been called the only ‘risk-free’ aerial means to target the militants’ hideouts.

Some circles draw a parallel between Stinger missiles and drone technology. The former is said to have changed the course of the Afghan war in 1986 when the Mujahideen used these to bring down Soviet choppers.

Drone technology was expected to defeat the militants in the present generation of warfare, but, not much headway has been made in this regard. Over the last seven years over 300 drone strikes have been carried out, killing more than 2,500 people in Pakistan’s tribal belt. But the Taliban remain — because while a drone strike kills militants, it also adds to militancy.

North Waziristan is an appropriate example of this; 80 per cent of drone strikes have been carried out in this agency which has only emerged as the fortress of militancy in Pakistan.

Given the circumstances, it is clear that tackling militants this way is not a viable option, and other possibilities must be explored. The issue is not so much the dearth of alternatives to replace drone technology, for, as put by Prof Hussain Shaheed Soherwardi, an expert on terrorism at Peshawar University, “The problem lies with the radical mindset [in the US military] which believes that crude force can help win the war for them.”

This notion carries more weight in the absence of an effective mechanism that can evaluate what precisely has been gained through drone attacks so far. Think tanks and foreign media outlets do release data to assess different aspects of the issue; but this can only be said to be guesswork given the inaccessibility of the battlefield.

Media reports are not going to help us realistically assess the pros and cons of the drone project. The issue is dealt with in a dehumanised way, and not in the context of what these strikes actually mean in Fata. “We get the notion that the US is attacking a country with flying robots,” says a US journalist.

This perception is further aggravated when our writers and authors, in a bid to create the ‘awe’ factor, promote the concept of lawless frontiers for foreign publications. By propagating Fata as a wild lawless territory, a feeling is imparted that the strikes are being carried out against savages.

Very few know exactly how the four million tribesmen live in Fata amid death and destruction. “Roughly 80 per cent of my patients belong to both the Waziristans and Afghanistan, and suffer mainly from depression and acute stress disorder,” says senior psychiatrist Dr Bashir Ahmad.

The drone debate has usually covered the legal, political and military areas of the militancy discourse. The frontiers of the debate have not been pushed beyond cold statistical data — that too, gathered in an unscientific way. In fact, the drone operation does not remain just that; it has become part of a violent culture.

Imagine the insecurities of civilian life when 15 to 20 unmanned Predators with deadly Hellfire missiles ‘hum’ over the targeted areas 24 hours a day. The tribesmen often call the drone ‘banga’ or ‘bangana’ — because of its grating sound — and ‘shematgara’ —which means backbiting due to its espionage characteristics.

In North and South Waziristan, where such attacks are more frequent, thick clouds of fear hang around everywhere. Parents find it difficult to calm their crying children once increased drone movement is sensed or smoke seen billowing from a target.

Within minutes of a drone strike, militants’ cordon off all entry and exit points leading to the venue attacked. The bodies of the foreign militants, if any, are removed forthwith. Local ones are kept on display. The art of packaging violence, however, is incomplete without ‘Jihadi’ rhetoric.

Master orators employ persuasive techniques to inform the youth that have come to have a look that this is the only honourable path left to die a hero’s death. The deprivation in the area has always helped the militants to convince the unemployed and disoriented tribal youth about the rationality of their radical purpose.

The death of militants does not end the civilians’ agony which is, instead, aggravated. Sometimes, casualties mount when mud houses in the vicinity cannot bear the impact of a strike in the neighbourhood. Then, there is a witch-hunt that follows every strike.

The militants may not know exactly who has provided the ground intelligence for the aerial assault, but a few beheadings in the vicinity are considered necessary to maintain the required level of fear.

It is strange then to hear foreign observers describe drone strikes as risk-free. They isolate drone strikes from the terror culture which these attacks, in fact, enhance.

But, the tribesmen’s support for drone operations also needs to be understood. About half of them have left the tribal belt due to unending military operations.

While they languish in IDP camps or live with relatives on the Fata borders, their minds are focused on home. They believe less in the purpose of military operations and more in the wholesale destruction that they result in.

While, according to military sources, there have been some 5,000 PAF sorties and 10,000 bombs dropped in Fata, the tribesmen have seen no real damage inflicted on the militants’ network.

But drones have killed top militant commanders. “Drones know their enemy and do not discriminate between ‘good’ or ‘bad’ militants,” said a displaced tribal elder.

This ‘evenhandedness’ is appreciated to the extent that those who have lost everything at home support drone strikes wholeheartedly, despite knowing that their approval puts in danger the lives of their tribal cousins left behind in Fata.

Unfortunately, our policymakers have paid less attention to eliminating factors providing oxygen to militancy in Fata. The state needs to understand the tribesmen’s hardship and incorporate them in policymaking. It is the state’s complacency that has led to foreign powers violating Pakistani airspace and seeds being planted for a reactionary culture in Fata.

The writer teaches at University of Peshawar.

Source: The Dawn, Karachi