Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A sensible article on the American drones in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

There was always division within the Obama administration about how to approach Pakistan. People like John Kerry and others were advocates of a deeper socio-economic involvement, whereas others in the administration have been arguing for taking a harder stance. There was a profile of John Kerry in the NYT Magazine and it talked about his anger after hearing of an American drone attack soon after he left Islamabad after fruitful negotiations. The article was not about US foreign policy in Pakistan, but it demonstrated the fissures within the Obama administration.

The post Bin-Laden postures clearly show that the Kerry faction has lost influence - at least for the time being. All nuance towards Pakistan, including the acknowledgement of a deeply complex and intertwined history of US and Pakistan involvement in Afghanistan, has now been set-aside. The discussions in news media now usually focus only on the fact that the US is giving so much money to Pakistan and is only getting betrayal in return. No mention of how Pakistanis view US drone attacks and civilian casualties, the costs of maintaining a sizable fraction of the army on the Afghan border, the retaliation attacks by the Taliban inside Pakistan since the US invasion of Afghanistan, and the impact of regional politics. Yes, Pakistan's domestic policies are in shambles, and the army and the ISI have also been playing with fire in continuing to harbor militant groups that have been working against India. Nevertheless, this is a complex picture in a very complex region (see an earlier post: Popular Science as a Guide to Popular Geopolitics)

It is therefore rare to see an article in NYT that takes a sensible approach to the issue of drone attacks and to the region as a whole. The issue of drones has come up again as CIA has made a ridiculous claim that for a year there has not been a single civilian casualty in drone attacks in Pakistan (by the way, even if this fairytale was true, we still have to address the legality and ethics of drone attacks to begin with). I think this strategy may be effective in the short run, but will end-up alienating the larger segment of Pakistani population. It will be a losing strategy if US exchanges turmoil in Afghanistan (population 30 million) with turmoil and anti-Americanism in Pakistan (population 180 million). And this is roughly the point of this oped in NYT:
Over the past two years, America has narrowed its goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan to a single-minded focus on eliminating Al Qaeda. Public support for a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan has waned. American officials dealing with Pakistan now spend most of their time haggling over our military and intelligence activities, when they should instead be pursuing the sort of comprehensive social, diplomatic and economic reforms that Pakistan desperately needs and that would advance America’s long-term interests.
In Pakistan, no issue is more controversial than American drone attacks in Pakistani territory along the Afghan border. The Obama administration contends that using drones to kill 10 or 20 more Qaeda leaders would eliminate the organization. This is wishful thinking.
 Moreover, as the drone campaign wears on, hatred of America is increasing in Pakistan. American officials may praise the precision of the drone attacks. But in Pakistan, news media accounts of heavy civilian casualties are widely believed. Our reliance on high-tech strikes that pose no risk to our soldiers is bitterly resented in a country that cannot duplicate such feats of warfare without cost to its own troops.       
Our dogged persistence with the drone campaign is eroding our influence and damaging our ability to work with Pakistan to achieve other important security objectives like eliminating Taliban sanctuaries, encouraging Indian-Pakistani dialogue, and making Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal more secure.
Reducing Al Qaeda to a fringe group of scattered individuals without an organizational structure will only succeed if Pakistan asserts control over its full territory and brings government services to the regions bordering Afghanistan.
Washington should support a new security campaign that includes jointly controlled drone strikes and combines the capabilities of both countries. Together, the American and Pakistani governments can fashion a plan that meets the objectives of both without committing to broader joint campaigns that would not be politically viable at the moment.
Read the full article here.

Also see earlier posts:
Ethics, Morality, and Legality of Robotic Wars
Sorting through some of the post Bin Laden mess in Pakistan
Drone Strategy in Pakistan Being Questioned
Obamas's blind spot in his Pakistan-Afghanistan Strategy


Don said...

It is rare to see such a (comparatively) even-handed approach to Pakistan and drone attacks in the US media. Certainly there is more than enough coverage of problems with the ISI, for example... and yet, not really enough of that, either. Some of the panels I was able to go to at a conference earlier this summer had much talk over the work of the ISI against liberal elements in Pakistani society. It would be interesting to see more coverage of the relationship between the ISI and the Pakistani media as well as similar coverage on the CIA and media here in the US.

Salman Hameed said...

I think the ISI's work within Pakistan should be addressed and emphasized upon, including the murder of a journalist who was writing about the infiltration of navy by extreme elements. But then there are other legitimate strategic issues as well that gets ignored. But lets give credit to the relatively reasonable article in NYT.

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