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."

But none of the drone strikes would happen without the consent or acquiescence of the targeted states. In both Yemen and Pakistan, earlier strikes were carried out with the tacit approval of their respective governments. Their intensity has waxed or waned in response to the changing dynamics of domestic politics. This suggests that both states retained considerable authority over the attacks.

In 2002, the very first drone strike in Yemen was launched with the direct approval of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. To avoid fraught questions of jurisdiction and legality, it was agreed that Yemen would assume responsibility. But the charade collapsed when, in a television interview, the then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz took credit for the assassination. Feeling betrayed, an incensed Saleh refused the U.S. permission to carry out further attacks, and for the next eight years, there were none. They resumed in 2009, only after Bush had left office and Saleh struck a new deal with the Obama administration. They escalated once protests weakened the Saleh government -- but dropped again after Saleh was removed and stability returned.

The first drone struck Pakistan in June 2004, when Pervez Musharraf was president. By the time he stepped down, in August 2008, there had been 16 more. But with the ascension of the pliant Asif Ali Zardari, the attacks escalated. By the end of Zardari's term, there had been 351 further attacks. Zardari had granted the U.S. the cart blanche that his predecessor had presumably withheld. But the number of strikes dropped when, beginning in 2011, relations between the U.S. and the Pakistani military soured. There have been 14 so far this year; in 2013, there had been 128.

The attack on the mountaineers shows that in the targeted states, where blowback is inescapable, people have a more urgent need to see the drone war end. Only by inducing their governments to withhold cooperation can they force Washington to stand down. The stronger and more popular the government, the greater will be its capacity to resist. The drone strike earlier this month seems intended to forestall such a possibility. It forces on a government that is still finding its feet the onerous choice of either losing favor with Washington by resisting, or losing credibility at home by remaining silent. Musharraf and Zardari, according to Wikileaks, had resolved this dilemma by protesting in public while acquiescing in private. Sharif will be judged by his actions.

Sharif's government responded to the last attack by issuing a furious demarche, but it took less than a month for the U.S. to launch another attack. How Sharif responds this time will determine the fate of the drone war. In the last general election, he and other critics of the "war on terror" roundly defeated its supporters. Unlike his predecessors, he has a popular mandate to find a political solution to Pakistan's security problems. The U.S. can of course ignore Pakistani wishes, but Sharif has options. He can, for example, force cooperation by again blocking NATO's supply routes that run through Paksitan.

Alternately, Sharif can refer the case to the International Court of Justice. This will also force a judgment on the U.S. president's oft-repeated claim that his actions are consistent with international law. So far, international legal authorities have shown no more regard for Harold Koh's justifications for extrajudicial killings than they had for John Yoo's reasons for torture.

Powerful states have often treated international law as a tool to be used where they can and ignored where they must. But unless a state is exceptionally successful in isolating itself, it can still call on the minimum protections of international treaties and alliances. Pakistan is not isolated: it is a regional power; it has leverage. It can assert its sovereignty. But its intentions are not hostile. What in Washington might seem like lèse majesté is really an invitation to diplomacy. Both states have a shared interest in a peaceful resolution to the Afghan conflict. The alternative is perpetual war, the threat that Barack Obama assures us would prove ruinous to all.

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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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