In Praise of Drone Strikes

pakistanWhat I share herein are personal impressions gathered during my extensive travels in the tribal belt and my communications with the local tribesmen.

Pakistan Plays the Victim, Thoroughly Chewing the Curtains

The unmanned aircraft commonly known as drones are back in the media debate following the Washington Post report, “CIA Drone Strikes Will Get Pass in Counterterrorism Playbook.” The report suggests drone attacks in Pakistan have been declared the centerpiece of President Obama’s anti-terrorism strategy, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) will be given free rein to continue its remotely-controlled war in the tribal regions.

According to the Post, CIA has been authorized to hunt for Al Qaeda and its Taliban cohorts in the tribal regions for a year or so before it, too, must play by the new counterterrorism rules for targeted killings.

As usual, following the announcement of this new counterterrorism manual, Pakistan is playing the victim, despite the fact that Pakistan has secretly acquiesced to the use of drones in tribal areas (particularly against Taliban leaders who “go off the ISI reservation,” i.e., biting the hand that feeds them). On the one hand, the military refuses to pursue foreign terrorists based in North Waziristan (though now moving to other agencies).  On the other hand it propagandizes against drone strikes using government controlled media and right wing political leaders. Thus, the Pakistani military has become a global threat, and it fails to recognize that the war on terrorism will continue to be fought, with or without its cooperation. The sooner it faces this fact, the better for Pakistan and the region.

The Reality Disconnect

It might be surprising for erudite Westerners to learn that what they hear and read in the media has nothing to do with ground realities. Pakistan’s media is not independent. It harps on the mantra that drones are horrible weapons; they have breached Pakistan’s sovereignty, killed thousands of innocent civilians, and as a result, only serve to nurture further militancy. But when the same drone kills Taliban commanders such as Baitullah Mehsud, who have inconveniently turned against Pakistan’s military establishment, a mysterious silence prevails.

For some politicians, like Imran Khan, drones have become obsession. When 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai was attacked by Taliban for simply going to school, some of our mediocre TV anchors (mostly they are mediocre) and Imran Khan connected this incident with drone attacks in the tribal belt and had the outlandish temerity to suggest this little girl was an American agent. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt that such statements were merely meant in jest, they were in extremely bad taste.

Creating a jihadi army of neurotics

Last year while sitting in a restaurant in District Tank, which shares a border with South Waziristan, an old college friend from the Mehsud tribe glanced nervously over his shoulders, inched closer to me so as not be heard by other customers sipping their tea, and said, “The drone is the best weapon ever produced by human beings. It never misses the target and the people in North and South Waziristan are very happy with it. It does not uproot whole tribes and communities like gunship helicopters and mortar shells do, it does not destroy our cattle, it does not destroy our crops, it simply hits its target. There is very minimal collateral damage in such attacks. But it happens only if you are present in the room with the terrorists. Stay away from them and you are safe. Remember what we used to say at university, ‘a person is known by the company he avoids.’ ” he winked and burst into laughter.

He said the only people scared of drones are Taliban. Consequently, they neither dine together, nor sit together to crack jokes or share stories. The militants can neither attend weddings, nor go to burials. They cannot sleep at their houses, nor can they travel together in one vehicle. “Locally, drones are called ‘Da Talibano Plaar’ (Father of Taliban) as they’re the only thing that keeps them on the run for their lives, certainly not the friendly firing of Pakistani military,” he added sarcastically. The top Taliban commander, Mullah Nazir, who was recently killed by a drone strike in the Tribal belt of Pakistan, once told a friend of mine that drone strikes had rendered the Taliban completely neurotic, as they could hit them anytime anywhere. “The drones have traumatized my soldiers. There is no escape from them.”

In another instance, I enquired of a colleague from the Wazir tribe from North Waziristan, was it true that drones hit innocent civilians and thus ultimately nurture militancy? He replied that this assumption was baseless. “It is simply the media and some politicians that are misguiding people. The same media and politicians are mute when suicide attacks hit innocent people in our mosques, markets and offices. What about that collateral damage? The media and politicians lack even the courage to name the perpetrators,” my colleague said, adding his belief that the Taliban will continue carrying out attacks against the State and its people with or without drones.

Pick a Number, Any Number

Now about the military’s credibility in its ostensive fight against Taliban in FATA: Around three years ago, with a shy smile, a Peshawar-based colleague from BBC told me how, when Inter-Services Public Relations would issue press releases that such and such number of militants had been killed in a military operation carried out in Kurram Agency (along the border with Afghanistan), he would call them for clarification on the particulars of the operation, at which time the Army public affairs officer would suggest that he lower the number of casualties in his report, “because BBC is considered a credible source of information.”

kahar zalmayIn my country America bashing is both fashionable and part of our national psyche, despite the fact that Pakistan is among the largest recipients of American foreign aid. In support of drone strikes, I submit that the difference between a predator Taliban and a Predator drone is that the latter does not intentionally target innocent people, but terrorists who kidnap children and strap them into suicide vests do purposefully target unarmed civilians.

Kahar Zalmay

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on June 9, 2013
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About Kahar Zalmay

Kahar Zalmay is a freelance journalist and human rights defender from the Mohmand Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (FATA), currently based in Islamabad.