By Asad Rahim Khan
November 25, 2013
Try, try and try again, there’s no winning with Maulana Fazl ur Rehman. As Imran Khan’s men go on the march, growing angrier over drones — and ever hazier on terror — the JUI has booed and hissed and heckled the Tehreek every step of the way. And when DJ Butt’s inflatable concert made it to Peshawar, Fazl Group did much to puncture it in parts. Since both parties are in embarrassing agreement over substance: supply routes (block them) and drone strikes (end them), the JUI fought over style.
As the hip face of the Jamaat, Messr Jan Achakzai was brought out to slam the hip face of the PTI, arguing they had people play music when they should have been mourning. The JUI’s rallies are both sharp and visible — and that’s when they’re in agreement with Mr Khan. With no such hang-ups, the PML-N’s already cursing K-P for ruining relations with other countries.
As for the PTI, it began this latest campaign for the wrongest reasons: appeasing militants than saving civilians.
But forget for a second the populist parties, the politics they play, and the messes they make. Cut away the muck, and we’re left with the issue at hand.
Drones. The good, the bad, and the stuff Ahmed Rashid sahib writes books about. In our heart of hearts, we know exactly what these machines mean. But even in this tiny space, consider the cons and the cons.
First, what the law says. We’ve heard pretty words like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ till our ears bleed — and we know for a fact no one cares about either. Partly because no one has a legal foot to stand on, least of all the US.
As one brilliant case study by Notre Dame Law School’s Mary Ellen O’Connell reads, “The so-called ‘global war on terror’ is not an armed conflict. Members of the CIA are not lawful combatants and their participation in killing — even in an armed conflict — is a crime.” Drone attacks aren’t close to what the International Court of Justice considers ‘self-defence’, nor is Pakistan in ‘armed conflict’ with the US. Were Pakistan even to make the most express request for assistance, such attacks would bulldoze all humanitarian laws to do with distinction, necessity, proportionality and humanity, pretty much as they’re doing now.
And though we’re told he picks his ‘kill list’ on Tuesdays, US President Obama isn’t jaded enough to resist joking about chasing boy bands with Predator drones. But his Peace Prize-winning contempt for Pakistani lives isn’t as bad as our complicity in ending them. Each time hellfire rains from the skies, the state sighs, mispronounces ‘sovereignty’, and goes home … to pick targets later.
Now that we know what the law says, and just how badly the US and Pakistani regimes spit on each word, it’s best to appreciate the good parts. Like how wonderfully accurate these drones are, as a parade of reptiles in Washington tell anyone who listens to just how few kids they kill.
But it was David Kilcullen, a senior adviser to General Petraeus, who infamously admitted in 2009, “Since 2006, we’ve killed 14 senior al Qaeda leaders using drone strikes; in the same time period, we’ve killed 700 Pakistani civilians in the same area.” That would make it 50 Pakistanis per Salafi fanatic. This, while the Bureau of Investigative Journalism puts the number of our dead children up to 200.
Accurate these drones aren’t. And forget the ‘double-taps’ (killing rescuers) and ‘bug-splats’ (dead civilians) and other frat party lingo the strikers use to murder Pakistanis with. Studies including Professor O’Connell’s show us how these pilots work in videogame conditions, double-check with unreliable ground agents, and fire via joystick.
To recap: the US fires Hellfire missiles into Pakistan without it having asked, the two aren’t in a state of war, there’s no law in the galaxy that justifies murder of this kind, the pilots aren’t accurate, the pilots kill children, and the government is complicit. So where’s the good in all this?
Counter-terror, say the strikes’ local fan-boys (gentlemen who un-ironically play a lot of video games) —these Predators take out the bad guys we’re all terrified of. The argument goes that the state is surrendering, the army is stretched thin, and the political parties are giving in … or giving up. Drones are the only defence, and all those other issues — dead sovereignty and dead civilians — are the price we pay.
But having sunk so deep into what Dick Cheney called the Dark Side, that lawless place where one becomes the animal he hunts, we’re still the hunted. Drone attacks aren’t lessening terror. Some aren’t even meant to: witness Leon Panetta slam missiles into civilians’ hours after Raymond Davis’s release.
As Ali Ahmed wrote some time ago in this newspaper, the militant problem is, “decentralised. Separate chapters are independent in their actions, so it isn’t clear how striking at specific leaders would, or does, hamper their operational capabilities. Nor does it scare them. Or deter. After each killing, as a rule, a more demented guy takes over, with a more aggressive, vile agenda. No drone strike I can think of has actually resulted in wrestling back territory. In fact, North Waziristan (245 drone strikes), the most droned place on earth outside Afghanistan, remains the strongest bastion. Drones … haven’t pushed the fight an inch closer to the end. In fact, what they are is the foremost tool for prolonging it.”
It’s time we realise as much. UAV missiles need to be foregone for a much harder, much longer haul: making Fata part of this country again, building up our law enforcement to tackle terror before the army has to, judicial reform that lowers our acquittal rates and police reform that strengthens our evidence collection. But this narrative needs winning too; political parties require raging over terrorist killers as much as they do over drone deaths.
And before all else, Pakistani lives must be held sacred, equally uninfringeable by Predator drones or suicide bombers. That we’ve reduced it to one-or-the-other shows just how fragmented we’ve become today.
Asad Rahim Khan is a lawyer based in Lahore and studied law at Lincoln’s Inn and the London School of Economics.