Drones: A Non-Issue in U.S. Presidential Debate Riles Pakistan

The two U.S. presidential candidates found no reason to quarrel over the American use of drones overseas. But Pakistanis see it differently.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

A U.S. Predator drone flies above Kandahar Airfield, in southern Afghanistan, on Jan. 31, 2010

It was something both candidates could agree on. Near the end of the last debate between President Barack Obama and his opponent Mitt Romney on Monday, moderator Bob Schieffer asked the Republican presidential candidate where he stood on the U.S.’s “use of drones.” Romney voiced his support for the President’s ongoing policy of using unmanned weapons to attack terrorist targets, saying the U.S. should be ready by “any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world.” In a conversation that ranged from U.S. education to trade with China, Obama and Romney saw eye to eye on a several foreign policy points, but none generated as little debate as the Obama Administration’s increased dependence on drone technology, which has proved to be such a nonissue in this presidential race that it merited only a few words from Romney, and none at all from the sitting President.

But if Schieffer were to bring up drones among politicians in Islamabad today, a few more sparks might fly. The U.S. has been using drones to target parts of the country that lie on the border with Afghanistan since 2004 in an ongoing campaign to root out militants working against U.S. troops and interests. Many in Pakistan say that its governments in the past eight years have been complicit in — if not covertly supportive of — the campaign, if simply by dint of the fact that it has not taken up what’s a clear breach of sovereignty with any international legal body. Most of the drone strikes take place in parts of Pakistan that are both physically and socially remote from the rest of the country. Few journalists have been permitted to go into these specially administered areas to see what the drones do firsthand, and while compiled reports from groups like the nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism put the total number of people killed in drone strikes as high as 3,365, including 176 children, these figures have been questioned by parties both inside and outside Pakistan in the absence of official data from either government.

(PHOTOS: This Is What a Captured Drone Looks Like)

Pakistan’s domestic debate over drone attacks gained momentum last year, when relations between the country and the U.S. soured after Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in Abbottabad. It has become even louder still in recent weeks, after cricketer turned politician Imran Khan staged a widely publicized demonstration against the strikes. Khan’s plan was to march all the way to Waziristan, a border area where most of the drone strikes are reportedly happening. Though the military stopped his thousands-strong rally from entering the area on security grounds, the campaign did bring the conversation back into the spotlight, and forced others in Pakistan’s political arena to take a position on a subject that many would prefer to avoid. “All over the country, resistance has been building to drone attacks,” says Javed Hashmi, the president of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. “Drones are killing children and creating suicide attackers. You can’t win a war this way. Now international resistance is growing, even in the U.S.”

He’s right about that. A recent Pew Global Attitudes survey found that in “17 of 20 countries, more than half disapprove of U.S. drone attacks targeting extremist leaders and groups in nations such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.” And in Pakistan, many suggest that the drone campaign, while it may be fulfilling an immediate objective of picking off militants who support the fight against U.S. troops in Afghanistan, is actually working against America’s long-term interests in the country. As reports continue to emerge of the strikes’ negative impact on civilians in the border area, people all over the country are beginning to feel fed up. “When everybody turns against [the strikes], they lose their political purpose,” says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst in Lahore. “It contributes to anti-Americanism in Pakistan.”

(MORE: Betting Against a Drone Arms Race)

It’s hard to say exactly how many people in Pakistan support or oppose the use of drones. A survey published in 2010 by the New American Foundation reported that the majority of residents inside the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the Pakistani military has also launched major antimilitant operations in recent years, strongly opposed the strikes. Ajmal Khan Wazir, a prominent politician from South Waziristan, says the campaign has been ineffective — that the constant noise of drones overhead only creates fear among civilians and drives disgruntled young men into extremists’ arms. “The problems of FATA have ideological, political, economic and social dimensions,” Wazir says. Despite the Pakistan military interventions and U.S. drone strikes, he says, “our problems aren’t being solved. Instead, they have spread all over the country.”

Not all of Wazir’s constituents agree. Some people from the area say they are relieved to see the Taliban and other militant groups being targeted, even if they don’t have a lot of love for the country that’s doing it. “People are fed up [with the militants],” says Asif, a man in his 30s, who is from South Waziristan and now living in Islamabad. “The only hope for them is the drones … They want to get rid of those monsters, and they see [Pakistan’s] army does nothing.” Asif, who declines to give his full name, says for the overlooked civilians in FATA, who endure military occupation, displacement, unemployment and poverty, the “axis of evil” is the U.S., the Pakistani army and the militants. “If they’re fighting each other, we’re O.K. with it.” Despite reports that indicate hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes, some witnesses agree with Washington’s line that the drones are remarkably accurate in targeting insurgents and their supporters. Adnan Khan, a graduate student at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, says that the drones are doing a job his government has neglected in its clandestine effort to protect affiliates of the Haqqani network, which is fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan. “The Taliban has targeted innocent people and the government is silent about it,” he says. “The government could easily target the Taliban, but they do nothing. This is the reality.”

(PHOTOS: The Taliban’s War in Pakistan)

Others still say that whether or not residents approve of the drone strikes is besides the point. “This is not about popularity. This is about the law,” says Shahzad Akbar, a lawyer in Islamabad who represents drone-strike victims as the legal director of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights. “Drones have to be objected to on principle, not according to what individuals are being killed.” Akbar has filed lawsuits against the CIA and the Pakistani government on behalf of people whose civilian family members have been killed in drone strikes. He is not alone in his concerns about the legality of the U.S. drone campaign on Pakistani soil when the two countries are not at war. At a recent talk in New Delhi, Louise Arbour, head of the International Crisis Group, listed the increasing use of drones in places like Pakistan and Yemen as one of the red flags of the 21st century conflicts. Because these weapons, which “hold enormous attraction” for states that do not wish to engage in ground battle, are often being deployed in remote areas, Arbour said, “it makes it difficult to know whether they are being used [according to] the rules of war.”

Even in Islamabad, where politicos discuss these things over milky tea in marbled lobbies behind multiple layers of security, the real impact of this U.S. policy can feel chillingly abstract. It’s not easy to get to FATA, and it’s even harder to get out, so the reality of what it is like to live with drones buzzing overhead, good or bad, is yet another deep fissure running through Pakistan’s society. And yet amid the chatter, it is true that a kind of consensus seems to be forming in the capital. “Every action has its purpose,” says Imtiaz Gul, head of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. Given the increasing ill will toward the drone strikes and the enduring ambiguities in Pakistan, the use of drones “has outlived its utility,” he says. “There comes a time when it is getting nowhere.”

MORE: Foreign Policy: Big Promises, Harsh Realities

29 comments
thevisionmachine.com
thevisionmachine.com

Drones might anger the citizens of Pakistan but their corrupt government officials and politicians benefit greatly

from the US handouts which comes above and below the table. Drone Warfare is a non-starter for the US public because of the complicity of

US media and embedded advertising. Out of sight out of mine. Secret wars are secret because the media chooses not to lift the lid on Pandora's Box.

The average journalist would rather just go to a White House Press Briefing in Washington. Coffees hot and there are plenty of donuts and smoozy to be had!

byrontx
byrontx

I think you can say we are open to ides of how to whack the terrorists without using drones. The problem is that they are supported and shielded by the locals which from the perspective of the 21st century and a few thousand miles away seem to be a bunch of crazies. Since the border offers sanctuary to enemies it is obvious that the use of drones are going to be appealing.. The real solution likely lies in prohibiting Saudi funding of extreme madrases, where indoctrination not education is the agenda. Pakistan establishing a rule of law in the area and economic development. Pakistan is failing to provide the structure of a sovereign country, allowing the area to ferment as a lawless society, and has little basis for complaint.

thorbjorn
thorbjorn

It is simply disgusting to see  liberal media  justifying democrats' killing spree while excoriating the conservatives for not respecting international law.

thorbjorn
thorbjorn

It is not your four year olds getting blown up! so it is easy for you to punt and cheer lead obama's blood lust.

copablack
copablack

According to the former Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud " If I campaign for three months to win the hearts and minds of the local population, I might get some fifty or sixty people over to my side. But a single drone attack brings the whole village to my side." It seems as if these drone strikes are radicalizing more and more people in the areas in which they occur. We are creating terrorist faster than we can kill them.

nafees09
nafees09

shameful attitude of both presedential candidates. no one has the right to be judge jury and executioner. These drone strikes are counter productive, if they were efficient usa should have won the war. these drones are increasing anti amercanism in Pakistan and recruiting more militants. This is a failed policy. According to NYU and Stanford University 98% of civilians are killed in these drone strikes and only 2% are suspected militants. Well spent money of the US taxpayer !

SanMann
SanMann

What a joke. I didn't see Bob Schieffer asking any presidential candidate where they stood on the use of airstrikes against Belgrade. As a matter of fact, I recall a huge clamor from the Left in favor of bombing Serbia, a country which had never fired a shot against Americans. Meanwhile, we have the diametrically opposite situation of the 9-11 attacks which were the worst attack against the American homeland since Pearl Harbor, carried out by medieval fanatics who believe in head-chopping, hand-chopping and the subjugation of women, but the so-called "liberals" are now yawning and saying none of that is a big deal at all. So Serbia which never fired a shot against the US was a big deal and deserved to be bombed and dismembered, but the mass-murdering misogynistic Taliban are downplayed as misunderstood and persecuted.What the American Left are only advertising is their complete and thorough moral bankruptcy, along with their flip-flopping ethics, and a fleeting memory span that lasts 10 minutes before evaporating.

SBICPCL
SBICPCL

Once US and NATO forces dependency on supply route through Pakistan is over ,Pakistan will face the music for its duplicity in war against terror.

chippy1
chippy1

Are we worried that the Pakies are upset. Maybe we should place a few of our drones stright up their yazoo.

iqbaltay
iqbaltay

shameful attitude of election campaign based on dead bodies of innocent people particular of women and children out of drone attacks   IQBAL

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid like.author.displayName 1 Like

Obama is right on the money! Previous US Presidents havebelieved the lies of Pakistan Presidents and paid the price. Remember howMusharraf used to lie to Bush about being with the US to fight terrorism! Obamahad to deal with Osama without telling the Pakistanis. He is doing the same withthe drones. Finally, we have a President in the US who can deal with theduplicity of Pakistan

Kajua
Kajua like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@sridhar.sid Obama is smart person and Indeed good on making quick decision as he was quick to realize the duplicity of Indians using US for Nuclear agreement and buying reactors from France and Russia, baiting US on defense procurement and buying Jets from France. We have a President in the US who can deal with the duplicity as he was quick to realize the biggest importer of oil from Iran is India. I like him when he said jobs for Buffalo not for Bangalore.

SanMann
SanMann

Meanwhile, the doctor who helped capture Bin Laden rots in a Pakistani prison. Why didn't Bob Schieffer ask about that?

chippy1
chippy1

@Kajua @sridhar.sid Man, what is your India problem. Why do you have something against people that multiply like rats, Their culture is moribund, their politics dictatory, their economy stagnant, their skins sebaceous, and their social order loathsome to the minds of decent men everywhere. 'Sub-' is no idle prefix in it sapplication to this continent.Good Points: None

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

At least, for all its duplicity, India has a GDP of USD 1.8 trillian and not a failed state buddy! Produce more Talibans and the US will respond with more drones. Then, the humanity of the the US and others will move Malala to a safe country because Pakistan is not!

Nikka
Nikka

@sridhar.sid GDP of USD 1.8 trillian failed to feed half of Its hungry populatin. 654 million people poope in bushed, what a shame.

thorbjorn
thorbjorn

 India also has more poor than sub-Saharan Africa combined, half of its population has no access to clean water or even a toilet, India is the only country in the world where people are classified as untouchables ..... talk about not failed state and growing economy......

Vjil
Vjil like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@Kajua

Knock down Pakistani military (creator of Taliban & protector of Osama) - the world will be peaceful and there will be no more drone attacks.  Thanks Pakistani for your support.

thorbjorn
thorbjorn

@Vjil  

you Indians dont got cojones, thats is why you keep begging US to fight Pakis on your behalf!!!!! What bunch of wimps and retards?

TizzAlNabi
TizzAlNabi

It's simply amazing how the US kills hundreds of civilians in these drone attacks and nobody says a word. The UN is silent

SBICPCL
SBICPCL

@TizzAlNabi It is because Pakistan is giving sheltert to terrorist group like Haqqani who are in war with US & NATO forces and US has all rights to destroy its enemy where ever they are located and in this case in Pakistan.

Nimraa
Nimraa like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

US should use drones to attack or kill the PTT people who attacked Mullala Yousfzai  and are hiding in Afghanistan's province of Kunar.

Hassaan
Hassaan

@Nimraa You have absolutely no clue about the tribal regions. Read stanford/NYU, Columbia Law School, and Amnesty International reports before commenting on anything. Militants are based in Afghanistan, not Pakistan. 

SanMann
SanMann

@Hassaan,

Nope, Taliban ideology was created in Pakistan, and then exported to Afghanistan to turn it into a satellite state under Pakistani control. Pakistani govt has always survived on such covert operations.

copablack
copablack

@SanMann @Hassaan Actually the real source for much of the extremist ideology in the Muslim world, does not come from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Somalia, but it comes from the Gulf Arab states lead by none other than SAUDI ARABIA. 

Vjil
Vjil like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@Nimraa 

Taliban is actually Pakistani military disguised as civilians.  |Drone attacks should be on Pakistani military complexes.

copablack
copablack

@Vjil @Nimraa You forgot one thing. Pakistan has nuclear weapons and we do not know where all of their weapons are located since they constantly keep moving them. 

Nimraa
Nimraa

Generations of Indian died wishing for the day, In fact Gandhi is his last days was very sad about historical mistake he made, some times he would burst in to tears for his experiments in life and often go in to chills as was taught a good lesson by Churchill.

SBICPCL
SBICPCL

@Nimraa Your comment regarding Gandhi does not make any sense in this context.