Editorial:The drones are here!
The disclosure by United States Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that CIA’s unmanned Predator aircraft striking targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas are flown from an airbase inside Pakistan is going to prove politically wrenching for Islamabad. The disclosure dovetails with a statement by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi that Pakistan and the US are soon going to discuss a new strategy regarding drone attacks because these attacks are “not acceptable” to Islamabad. On her part, Senator Feinstein, at a hearing, is said to have expressed surprise at Pakistan’s protests, saying, “As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base”. In other words, the US senator is saying, “What’s the fuss about when they are in on it?” The Central Intelligence Agency has declined to comment on the statement, which is noteworthy for lack of outright denial. Senator Feinstein’s statement also becomes credible because undisclosed former US intelligence sources, according to the report, have confirmed that the account is accurate.
One thing is certain. Most counterterrorism experts even in the US who are plugged into the US establishment had assumed the drones are flown from bases in Afghanistan and remotely piloted from locations in the US. “If accurate, what this says is that Pakistani involvement, or at least acquiescence, has been much more extensive than has previously been known,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. “It puts the Pakistani government in a far more difficult position [in terms of] its credibility with its own people.” Senator Feinstein’s question, in the form of this disclosure, came during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee by US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who did not respond directly to the remark, but said that Pakistan is “sorting out” its cooperation with the United States.
There is now going to be a lot of “sorting out” and it will be more in relation to the domestic political fallout of this revelation than in terms of cooperation with the United States. It is difficult to assume that Senator Feinstein would not know or understand the full range of the impact of her disclosure on the Pakistani government. Where she is placed, there is not much room for Freudian slips. So why should she disclose something the world media would pick up and splash and which would definitely put Islamabad in hot water domestically?
The question becomes all the more significant if we go by the logic of an arrangement that was already very, very precarious and tenuous. Its outline probably ran like this: The US asked Pakistan to allow it to station some drones on its soil; intelligence cooperation between the two allowed US operatives to fly these drones from a base inside Pakistan; someone piloted them from the US; they loitered, picked up the target and unburdened themselves of their killer Hellfire payload and returned to the base. Pakistan protested and this sequence was repeated.
It should be obvious that this kind of cooperation, without its acceptance by the public, always ran the risk of accumulating negative ratings for the government based on the latter’s inability to do something about such attacks beyond merely protesting them.
But Senator Feinstein has delivered the coup de grace. It is not enough for Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar to say “I do not know on what she based all this.” Well, Mr Mukhtar should know that she has based it on her knowledge of the policy as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She is there to monitor and supervise exactly this kind of plan.
The tough part has been left out for Pakistan. Mere rejection of this disclosure will not do. There is too much political friction in Pakistan for the government to have that space. Its credibility, for various reasons, is already low. Now the opposition has got a shoe to throw at the government and we can be sure the TV channels in their mad rush for ratings will go to town on this one.
Could it be that Senator Feinstein, as part of a larger policy of disclosure, decided to put this on the table to pressure the government in Islamabad to own up to these attacks and shut up? This would also force us to assume that these attacks will continue. If so, someone did not think too hard about this. The PPP government is already skating on thin ice as far as US-Pakistan relations and the war on terror are concerned. To think that lifting the veil on the drone policy will, after the initial pain, make it easier for Islamabad, assumes too much and rather arbitrarily. Pakistan has remained stuck to its policy of denial for too long and this will, precisely for that reason, hurt more than anyone might have thought in Washington. But the bow is already bent and drawn. The government will have to show some slick footwork to get out of this mess created by the Musharraf regime which sanctioned such a policy. *
Second Editorial: Thus spake Rana Iqbal!
The Punjab Assembly speaker, Rana Iqbal, has spoken and Valentine’s Day has been damned. When Pakistan People’s Party MPA Riffat Sultana Dar said the government should allow people to celebrate Valentine’s Day, Mr Iqbal, oracle-like, thundered that it has nothing to do with our religion, culture and constitution and we cannot allow the celebration. Not just this, we are told the day is against Islam. Of course, we had predicted in so many words the possible reaction of the self-styled guardians of public morality in an earlier editorial. Even so, here are a few questions.
Since when has the Shehbaz Sharif government become a custodian of public morality beyond the sphere of the law and constitution? Are we about to see a reversion to the time when the police would see a couple strolling in the park and demand to see their nikah-namas or notice of clutch of loud youngsters at night and demand to smell their breath? One of the many banes of General Ziaul Haq’s rule was the conflation of sin and crime. Now, Mr Iqbal has risen to put down the innocent for expressing their love and affection for each other. As for culture, Mr Iqbal should know that there is nothing left of it, not even agriculture, unless there are good rains. The Punjab Assembly should be more concerned about legislation to ameliorate the regular plight of the citizens of this province rather than pronouncing judgements on moral behaviour or categorising and cataloguing it as this and that. Let it be said that Mr Iqbal has not covered himself in glory by his “verdict”. Is Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif going to sit back and say nothing? *