VIEW: Drone attacks — myth and reality — Muhammad Zubair
In comparison to the 297 drone attacks, taking out a significant number of the most dreaded terrorists, what is the result of 5,000 strike sorties and dropping of 11,600 bombs by the PAF?
Drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas are one of the contentious issues in the current standoff between Pakistan and the United States. Pakistan is demanding a complete stop to drone attacks as part of the new terms of engagement with the US, terming the same as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and resulting in the death of innocent civilians. On the other hand, the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has recently responded to Pakistan’s demand by saying that the use of drones is essential for defending the Americans. One is doubtful whether Pakistan would press the demand if NATO agrees to a new price tag the former wants for overland deliveries of military supplies to Afghanistan.
However, it is time to rethink the myth and reality of drone attacks, presently clouded in the Pakistani rhetoric of sovereignty and civilian deaths. It is also important to make a comparative and objective analysis of drone attacks and the air campaign of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in the tribal areas in terms of their numbers, effectiveness and its implications for the internal security situation. In this regard, it is imperative to hear the voice of tribal people that has been conveniently ignored so far.
Since 2004, 297 drone attacks have taken place in the tribal areas, mostly in South and North Wazristan (The Long War Journal). Undoubtedly, it has resulted in the elimination of the top al Qaeda leadership and weakening of its organisational structure and coordination capacities. It has also eliminated the most dreaded Pakistani militants like Baitullah Mehsud (leader and founder of the TTP), Qari Hussain (master of suicide bombers), Ilyas Kashmiri, and a score of other local and foreign militants. Many killed in drone attacks were involved in indiscriminate killing of thousands of innocent Pakistani civilians as well as attacks on the army, police and other law-enforcement organisations and their infrastructure.
On the other hand, Pakistan Air Chief Marshal (Retd) Rao Qamar Suleiman made a rare and startling revelation in his address to a conference of air chiefs in Dubai in November 2011. He claimed the PAF had flown 5,000 strike sorties and dropped 11,600 bombs on 4,600 targets in Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas since May 2008. While sharing the lessons learnt, the chief further revealed that until May 2009 when the PAF had acquired Goodrich DB110 electro-optical reconnaissance pods for its F-16s, it had to rely on Google Earth imagery for attacks against the militant targets.
Without having access to the tribal areas, print and electronic media in Pakistan has incessantly been giving high estimates of civilian casualties in drone attacks. In fact, no one from outside the tribal areas knows exactly the identity and number of those killed in such attacks. It is the standard operating procedure of militants to cordon off a targeted area after an attack, without allowing anyone to have access to the dead.
Quite contrary to the media’s unverifiable reports, the IDPs of South Waziristan and people of North Waziristan tell a different story about such attacks, albeit in whispers due to fear. The IDPs claim that drones did not disrupt their social life or cause infrastructural damage or killed innocent civilians because of the precise and targeted nature of their attacks. An old woman in the IDPs camp in D I Khan told me last year, “Son, bangbangane (local name for drones) go after the gunehgar (sinner) and not the innocent.” They recalled the dreaded, heavy and indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations and infrastructure by the heavy artillery of the Pakistan army and PAF jets and compared it with the targeted and precise attacks on individual militants by drones. They held the army/PAF responsible for turning thousands of their houses and hundreds of villages into rubble. Maybe, the use of Google Earth imagery by the PAF is responsible for that!
In comparison to the 297 drone attacks, taking out a significant number of the most dreaded terrorists, one might ask what is the result of 5,000 strike sorties and dropping of 11,600 bombs by the PAF? Why does not a single terrorist worth his name come to one’s mind having been eliminated by these operations? While parliament, the so-called free media and ghairat brigade of Pakistan keeps on shedding tears on the unverifiable killing of an unknown number of innocent civilians in drone attacks, do they have the courage to investigate honestly? How many innocent civilians have been killed? How many houses and villages have been destroyed in the army and PAF operations? Why are thousands of tribesmen, women and children languishing in settled areas as IDPs? Why has Pakistan failed to establish its writ in the tribal areas and provide security to common people with more than a hundred thousand troops on the ground?
The rhetoric of violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by drones may be a luxury for those who enjoy the comforts of the big cities of Pakistan but it only extracts a wounded smile from the face of a tribesman. They ask a simple question: have the terrorists not violated Pakistan’s sovereignty by flocking into the tribal areas from all around the world, occupying their houses and making them live a miserable life of IDPs in their own country? They think the only effective weapons used against these foreign occupiers are the drone attacks.
By not cleansing the tribal areas of terrorists on the one hand, and by demonising the drone attacks as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty on the other, we are only helping the terrorists have safe havens and perpetuating the miseries of the tribal people. It is also the height of ingratitude to the US for taking out terrorists like Baitullah Mehsud and others, who have the blood of thousands of innocent civilian Pakistanis on their hands. I am sure the US would not want to carry on a drone campaign if the military of Pakistan cleans the tribal areas once and for all as it did in Swat.
The writer is an assistant professor of Law at the University of Peshawar, Pakistan. Presently, he is a PhD scholar at the Maurer School of Law, Indiana University, Indiana, USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com