Why the U.S. Still Needs to Use Drones in Pakistan

Until Islamabad can enforce the rule of law, and as long as terror cells remain operational inside the country's borders, there's no way around it.


Mian Kursheed/Reuters

America's covert drone war isn't what the main lines of debate in the U.S. make it out to be: It's the consequence of many decades of politics, militancy, and violence -- and that history is why both Washington and Islamabad are using drones to strike at militants. Ignoring that history to focus only on reported U.S. activity misses the point, and distracts from the real challenge posed by the double game that Pakistan has been playing.

The United States relies on drones to strike militants because it doesn't have any better options. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where most militants live and drone strikes occur, is a political wasteland with little law enforcement -- leaving policymakers with few options for pursuing the terrorists that continue to kill thousands of Pakistani civilians (and actively support the insurgency next door in Afghanistan).

For decades, the FATA were governed by an outdated British colonial law from the 19th century called the Frontier Crimes Regulations. The FCR don't allow for the normal rule of law -- rule was implemented by "political agents" (a version of the imperial viceroy) who acted as advisers for the secular tribal leaders. But when Islamabad granted the tribal areas the right to vote in 1996, they forbade the formation of political parties -- meaning any politician had to campaign as an independent. Islamists, who rallied support through the mosques and madrassas, soon marginalized any secular figures -- including the traditional tribal leadership.

It is a system seemingly designed to foster unrest & militancy -- and under the Taliban's predations the tribal leadership of the FATA has been brutally persecuted.

Islamabad has taken some halting steps to end the FATA's political isolation: late last year, President Asif Ali Zardari expanded political and legal reforms to the region, allowing political parties to field candidates for parliament. Though these reforms have not substantially altered political life in the tribal areas, they are a welcome first step toward addressing one major cause of local militancy.

To end finally the threat of Islamist militancy in Pakistan, however, requires the Pakistani government to stop supporting it.

In the midst of the Afghan civil war, in 1995, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto " capitulated to [Pakistani intelligence's] persistent requests for unlimited covert aid" to the Taliban, which she described to U.S. officials as a "pro-Pakistan force."

Islamabad then refused to help the United States apprehend Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s. By this point, decades of Pakistani elites' deliberate politicization of Islam had created a monster they could no longer control. Still, they tried, and Pakistan's intelligence service sent those militantswest to fight in Afghanistan and east to fight the Indians in Kashmir. Those militants eventually found a home in the FATA, where they could operate in a legal no-man's land.

In other words, Islamist militancy in the FATA is the creation of the Pakistani state.

But there is a bigger question that needs asking: Is there a better way?

Ending the drone strikes is not as simple as halting operations. One way or another, both Washington and Islamabad want to neutralize the militants that threaten their citizens (both countries often disagree over which militants to target, which prompts most of the outcry by Pakistani officials). When Pakistan doesn't use drones to target militants, they kill thousands of civilians and displace hundreds of thousands of people; besides sending hundreds of thousands of troops to forcibly secure the area, the United States just doesn't have any other options for striking at militants.

Pakistani politicians, rather than grappling with this complicated challenge, have chosen instead to demagogue the issue. The sophisticated media wing of the ISI constantly redirects any ire for its own support of Islamist militancy into anti-American drone outrage. Imran Khan, the popular cricket player-turned politician, has been particularly brazen in this regard, going so far as to hold an " anti-drone rally" in South Waziristan this Sunday. This rally does nothing to address the horrors of militancy in the FATA, and it redirects blame for the shattered communities of the region from Islamabad to Washington. It makes sense, then, that the Taliban have endorsed his rally and promised his followers safe passage.

Militancy in the FATA can only be marginalized through the building of normal politics and the rule of law: abolishing the FCR, building a normal police force and legal system, and de-militarizing Islamabad's engagement with the local population. This doesn't have a terribly strong chance of success in the short term. There is no real appetite in the rest of Pakistan to support the full normalization of politics in the FATA, and the military establishment actively supports politicians that choose to condemn the drone strikes rather than focus on the political issues underlying the government's long relationship with militancy.

Ultimately, it was the decision of the military and the ISI to support terrorist movements that has turned the FATA into the haven for militancy it is today. It must be those same institutions that need to come to grips with their own history of supporting these groups if there's to be any hope for change.

Pakistani politics are not currently oriented around this painful discussion, and so long as demagogues like Imran Khan play the issue for cheap anti-Americanism, that painful discussion is unlikely to happen.

In the meantime, that leaves drones as the only anti-militancy option Islamabad and Washington can agree on. Without Pakistan choosing to reform itself and tackle its decades of support for Islamist militancy seriously, there will simply be no other feasible way to fight terror cells ensconced in the country.