The recent American drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal region has rekindled the old debate. Pakistan has raised the question of sovereignty and collateral damage, whereas the Americans argue that the drones targeted a militant commander belonging to the Haqqani network.
Given the lack of independent access, one will never know about the drone targets. However, what is clear is the restarting of drone programme by the Trump administration after a decline in its use. The use of drones by the CIA, with their base in Afghanistan peaked under Obama’s period. Though it started during Bush’s administration, the American reliance on the drones as a preferred weapon of choice across the Durand Line reached an all-time high when Obama was the President. However, during the later part of Obama’s period, there was a decline in the drone attacks. Perhaps, it was a conscious decision, or perhaps, the targets had moved away from the tribal regions of Pakistan, that the CIA could not make use of them.
Whatever may be the reason behind, when Trump took over, the use of drones as a weapon of counter-terrorism had come down. During the last few weeks, one could see a resurgence in the use of drones by the CIA. What has caused the change? Are there more militants now in the tribal region, than during early 2017? Or, are there other reasons for Trump to rely on the drones?
The US: Between Despair and Arrogance
Strangely, the use of drones for the US is borne out of helplessness, fear and arrogance. When the use of drone started during the first half of the last decade, it was intermittent. Perhaps, there was an understanding with Pakistan, then under Gen Musharraf’s rule. Starting with Nek Mohammad, the first set of drone attacks targeted militants belonging to the al Qaeda and their local supporters. Militants from Central Asia and West Asia were the primary targets during the initial phase of drone attacks.
Either there was Pakistani collusion or the regime did not worry about the attacks. Besides, the drones were used to target militants primarily in the Tribal Agencies; hardly there were any drone attacks in KP or Balochistan during this phase.
The problem started later when the drone attacks began targeting the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. It started hurting Pakistan, as they were “their boys”; suddenly, the media began raising the pitch on the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Perhaps, the Deep State wanted that resistance in public.
Post Musharraf phase, during Gen Kayani’s period, the US-Pakistan relations on sharing intelligence across the Af-Pak region started falling apart. The US started suspecting Pakistan withholding information, worse, acting against the American interests in going after the militants in the region. The failure of joint operations, or the fear of intelligence leaking out, made the US helpless and look for options.
When the joint intelligence started draining in the Af-Pak regarding the movement of the militants, the US had started to rely on technology; satellite-based data became a primary tool for information collection regarding the movement of militants and their hideouts. When the human intelligence corroborated the same, the CIA started using drones with deadly accuracy. During the last ten years, the drones played a major role in neutralizing the top leadership of the al Qaeda and their local supporters hiding the tribal regions.
An important question is related to the legality of the use of drones by the US in the Af-Pak region. Is the use of drones in the Af-Pak legal? Certainly not. Neither Afghanistan is likely to be aware of the entire drone programme, not Pakistan is informed about the use of it. The US is undertaking the drone programme in the region, because, it can do it.
For Trump, perhaps the drones are also about arm-twisting Pakistan. He had warned Pakistan repeatedly since August last year to change its support to the militant groups that are fighting in Afghanistan. There were enough hints – direct and indirect – that the US will go alone and start taking action against those militants hiding in the tribal regions of Pakistan if the latter fails to pursue a credible strategy.
So, for the Trump administration, the drones are also not only about targeting the militants, but also a strategy to force Pakistan to fall in line.
Pakistan: Between Sovereignty and Duplicity
Pakistan’s position on the American drones has been simple. It was repeatedly telling the American administration that the drones instead of arresting militancy end up aiding it. Pakistan has also been repeatedly emphasising about collateral damage. Both positions have a theoretical point, but cannot be proved on the ground completely.
If the drone attacks are a cause of the expansion of militancy, how to explain militant attacks in those areas, where there are no drone attacks? For example, KP and Balochistan have hardly witnessed any drones in the last fifteen years; but, both the provinces remain highly violent.
Second – the collateral damage. There were instances, in which the civilian did get killed, but in most cases, the drone attacks have been target specific. In some instances, the foreign militants who were killed along with the primary target was pushed as collateral damage.
Despite the above, Pakistan has a serious case on the issue of sovereignty. American drone attacks on Pakistani territory is an infringement of sovereignty. None can deny it legally.
However, politically, Pakistan walks a thin line. If the drones are illegal, then so are the targets. How did the foreign militants, who were being targeted by the drones enter into Pakistan, especially the tribal agencies? When the Pakistani citizens from the mainland cannot easily enter the tribal regions, as could be seen from the complaints of academics and journalists who would like to visit these regions, how did the militants enter here? How did they marry and even settle in these tribal regions? Do the authorities know about their presence and ignore it?
Second, if Pakistan considers drones as a violation of its sovereignty, what stops the military from shooting the same? Imagine, if either India or Iran engage in drone warfare even to gather intelligence, will the Pakistan Establishment watch it, and only complain about the same as the violation of sovereignty? They will be shot at, followed by an escalation – both military and rhetoric.
Why then is Pakistan not shooting down the American drones, if they are violating the former’s airspace? Either, the drones are extremely stealth and super-fast, or Pakistan lacks military capacity to shoot them. Both are not true. Here lies Pakistan’s duplicity. There were instances in which Pakistan shared the intelligence about the movement of militants and allowed the drone strikes – to avoid backlash, but pin the blame on the US. Now, it is allowing the public opinion to rally against the US, and use it as a pressure tactic to prevent the US from going against the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban.
Third, Pakistan initially was willing to ignore the drone attacks, as long as it is limited to tribal agencies. The US was aware of Pakistan’s sensitivities on the issue and limited the strikes to the FATA. During the last few years, the Afghan Taliban has moved into Balochistan. There is fear inside Pakistan, whether this administration will expand the drones into the provinces. More than that, Pakistan would want to protect its own strategic asset – the Haqqani Network, who in the recent years have moved from Eastern Afghanistan into the tribal agencies.
Given the American fears and arrogance, and Pakistan’s duplicity, one could expect an increase in drone attacks by the US.