Tying our own hands with others’ drones - Mosharraf Zaidi - 19th November 2013

Did you watch the National Assembly proceedings in which Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar and PTI leader Imran Khan jointly outsourced Pakistan’s sovereignty to the US government and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)? I did. If you don’t remember it, let us review.

Hakeemullah Mehsud gets killed in a drone strike. Pakistan’s interior minister officially blames the US for “killing the peace process”. Imran Khan, beaten to the punch by the party he’s trying to beat to the punch, essentially nods in agreement. Louder. A few days later, the interior minister tells the National Assembly that there will be no peace process until the US ends drone strikes – because the TTP said so. Imran Khan, once again, flabbergasted at the ironic resemblance between the PML-N and the PTI, can only nod in agreement.

The TTP is waging war on Pakistan. Pakistan has tried to fight the TTP – with mixed results. Mixed in that North Waziristan is completely under the sovereign control of the TTP, and the rest of Fata is variously subservient to Pakistani troops, US drone operators, TTP commanders and DMG officers posted as political agents.

Given these mixed results, Pakistan has decided to talk to the TTP instead of fighting it (never mind that these essentially entail surrender talks – that is a separate discussion altogether). It is a sovereign, popular decision by Pakistan. One of the very few it ever takes of that nature. Bravo.

Already, in this sequence, you can see Pakistani sovereignty hanging by a thread. But sonay pe sohaaga, it gets worse. The punch line belongs to Ch Nisar.

The US, violating Pakistani sovereignty (for the gazzillionth time), kills Hakeemullah Mehsud, quite brazenly and with no apology. Ch Nisar reacts by doing two things.

One, he complains that the US has sabotaged a process of peace that his government, in its sovereign magnificence, was undertaking. He can do nothing more than complain. This has been the Pakistani mantra since at least April 2012. He is crying in the rain.

Two, he says he is heretofore powerless, and as instructed by the TTP, Pakistan will not engage in any further effort to secure peace, until the US ends these drone strikes.

This is a triple whammy of sovereignty outsourcing at its most gruesome and painful. First, Pakistan can do nothing but request the US to stop drone strikes. Second, Pakistan can do nothing but communicate the TTPs insistence that drone strikes end, before it will agree to talk to the Pakistani government about ending its terror strikes on Pakistanis. Third, Pakistan can, once again, do nothing but request the US to stop drone strikes.

The solution? Well, let’s hang on for a moment. We have not fully defined the problem. How did we end up discussing US drone strikes as the determinant of Pakistan’s peace overtures to the TTP?

Of all the self-deluding lies and cancerous fables that Pakistani generals, politicians and mullahs have ever sold us, I’ve never quite come across such a magnificently stitched yarn as this one. It really is breathtaking in its complexity, execution and self-destructive potential.

US drone strikes as a determinant of the TTP and government of Pakistan ‘peace talks’ is fresh. US drone strikes have a much longer and more legitimate history as a bilateral issue between Pakistan and the US, and as a multilateral issue for the United Nations and others interested in international rule of law.

Like almost every other issue of salience to Pakistan’s present and future, US drone strikes have been reduced to a binary discussion by some of the most intelligent people in Pakistan. This is to the detriment of the country at large, and our fractured and delicate public discourse in particular. Binary positions on complex issues only add to the rationality-deficit in a faux piety obsessed Pakistan.

We expect such binary positions among right-wingers with no appetite or capacity for complexity. When they appear among reasonable people in the centre or on the left, we’re left ruing the collective fatigue and confusion of almost forty years of the holy war Pakistan has waged on itself. But we need not feign helplessness in the case of drone strikes.

Despite their complexity, reasonable Pakistanis can develop nuanced and balanced views on their use, effectiveness and legality. This is vital, because in the absence of such nuance, we will be left at the mercy of the logic employed by Chaudhry Nisar and Imran Khan. God help us.

First of all, let us establish that the debate is not about ‘drones’. The word ‘drones’ is the euphemistic term for unmanned aerial vehicles – many countries manufacture and use them, including Pakistan. The debate is also not about drone strikes. We can be almost certain that, apart from some human rights groups, no one would be discussing drone strikes if Pakistani Reapers and Predators were watching over Pakistan airspace waiting for terrorists to appear, so that they could unload their Hellfire upon them.

The debate in Pakistan is about US drones strikes.

There can be arguments about the degree or vigour we afford to some of the facts surrounding US drone strikes. Indeed the recent public spat between Defence Minister Nawaz Sharif’s defence ministry and Foreign Minister Nawaz Sharif’s foreign ministry over the exact numbers of civilian deaths caused by drone strikes is an excellent case in point. However, there can be no argument about the facts.

First, US drone strikes are better at killing terrorists in Pakistan than any other instrument. Second, US drone strikes are illegal, because at least since April 2012, they are operated by a foreign government on Pakistani territory without the authorisation of the Pakistani government. And third, US drone strikes have killed innocent civilians.

These three facts are independent of the TTP and Pakistan’s efforts to win a conversation with the TTP. They are also independent of the much deeper and systemic problem of violent extremism, which is now a social phenomenon in Pakistan to which the state and society are disabled onlookers, feigning reverential assent, whilst quivering in fear.

We can be as depressed about the future as we like, but perhaps we should aim to go into the night with at least the dignity of some clarity of thought.

Support for US drone strikes does not mean one is anti-Pakistan. A lot of support for these comes from within the Pakistani military, from men who put their lives on the line for the country every day, as well as from peaceful Fata tribesmen, who live between rocks and hard places.

Opposition to drone strikes does not mean one is pro-TTP. A lot of opposition to them comes from the principled stand points of human rights activists, internationalists and those who still believe in international rule of law, and the right to life of innocent people.

If the military leadership of this country had been less addicted to lies, and the political leadership of this country less addicted to cowering behind those lies, we could have had a decent national debate about drones. Should Pakistan officially endorse US drone strikes, thereby rendering them legal? Should Pakistan shoot down US drones, enforcing its territorial integrity? Are there reasonable options between these choices? The answer would be reached through the various costs and benefits they afford Pakistan. The answer would be on Pakistan’s terms.

Instead, US drone strikes are being used as a cover for Pakistan to outsource its most vital decisions to the US and the TTP. What if the US never stops using drone strikes and the TTP never agrees to talk? Did the geniuses declaring the death of peace talks due to drone strike ‘injuries’ ever consider this? And if they did, did they realise this constitutes the liquidation of Pakistani agency? Can Pakistan really afford to tie its own hands in these dangerous times?