How Pakistan Can Stop Drone Strikes

The attacks' intensity varies with the internal politics of the targeted states.
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Men hold up a placard during a rally against drone attacks in Karachi on May 22, 2011. (Athar Hussain/Reuters)

The picturesque valleys of Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan are overlooked by the immense snowcaps of Nanga Parbat. At more than 26,000 feet, it is the world's ninth tallest mountain, but for alpinists it is a challenge far greater than Everest. It's a rare mountaineer who is unaware of its reputation as "the killer mountain." The notoriety derives from its deadly avalanches and crevasses, but the death that was visited on a group of climbers last month took a much different form. Eleven mountaineers were killed when militants affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban entered their basecamp and unleashed a deadly fusillade.

The assailants claimed the slaughter was retaliation for a June 7 drone strike that killed the Taliban deputy leader Waliur Rehman. Unlike the mountaineers, Pakistan was braced for the attack. Only the location came as a surprise.

Earlier in the month, when the newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office, he had used his inaugural address to ask the U.S. to refrain from further attacks in Pakistan. It took less than 48 hours for the CIA to ignore his demand and launch the deadly strike that killed nine, including the Taliban leader. Pakistanis were incensed. It was more than a breach of the country's sovereignty; it was also an intervention in its politics and an invitation to further violence.

Pakistan's troubled northwest frontier has a fraught history of counterinsurgency. The terrain is forbidding, weapons are freely available, and state authority is limited. The uncertain gains of military action have always to be balanced with the real threat of reprisal.

Conscious of the country's vulnerabilities, the Sharif government is considering political alternatives to quell insurrection. He is following the precedent of the 1990s, when two successive governments (one of them his own) had defused armed rebellion through temporary concessions that were then used to reassert the state's authority. The June 7 attack succeeded in making the new government appear ineffectual, unable to defend its own sovereignty. It weakened Sharif's hand vis-à-vis the Taliban. It also made retaliation inevitable.

The CIA could not have been oblivious to the consequences. It had used drone strikes on two earlier occasions to sabotage Pakistani peace treaties with the Taliban. But that was a different time: the U.S. was determined to stay and convinced of victory. At a time when military success looks elusive, and the U.S. is itself negotiating with the Taliban, it is not obvious to Pakistanis why they should be denied the same option.

The attack also rankled because it came a mere two weeks after Barack Obama's speech warning against the dangers of "perpetual war." Pakistanis had welcomed the speech. In their optimistic reading, they saw it as signaling an end to the drone war.

Obama's lofty rhetoric, his confession of anguish at the seemingly irreconcilable demands of security and liberty, led many to hear in his words a call for restraint. But the speech was ambiguous in its details. It used the acknowledgment of error as a substitute for redress; it stated the dangers of limitless war merely to dismiss them. Violence was abhorrent but indispensable; perpetual war was costly but unavoidable. America was at a crossroads, but steadfast in its present course; fear was debilitating, but a sound basis for policy. The "total defeat of terror" was impossible, but "defeating al Qaeda and its associated forces" must remain the state's foremost objective.

Any hope that he proffered was soon abridged in action. His only concrete proposal -- restrictive targeting criteria codified in a Presidential Policy Guidance -- was immediately undermined by administration officials who told the press that the invidious "signature strikes" would continue unabated. In claiming that a "high threshold" had been set for lethal action against "potential terrorist targets," regardless of whether or not they are American citizens," Obama perhaps did not allay fears abroad, but he certainly gave U.S. citizens renewed cause for alarm.

Buried in the speech however was an important acknowledgement. "America cannot take strikes wherever we choose," said Obama, "our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty."

Presented by

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s The Road to Jerusalem: American Neoconservatism and the Iraq War will be published by the Edinburgh University Press. 

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