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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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