The case against drone strikes

Published in The Express Tribune

It’s hard to find a greater symbol of cruelty than the Khmer Rouge. A communist outfit led by Saloth Sar, later known as Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge dreamt of transforming Cambodia into an agrarian paradise. After seizing power in 1975, the party became a frenzied killing machine. Entire cities were evacuated, with the displaced made to labour in the countryside so as to become ‘a nation of peasants’. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, civil servants, intellectuals, and minority people were killed in the open, some by pickaxe to save bullets.

But there was a Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge. With war raging in neighboring Vietnam, the United States carpet-bombed Cambodia throughout the early ‘70s. Then, as now, the target of the bombing campaigns was an insurgency that fed the war next door and fought to overthrow the state. Then, as now, the US had the support of the government in return for aid and self-preservation. And, as several Western analysts now admit, there was a strong correlation between villages bombed and the rise in support for the Maoists in those villages. Cambodia would erupt into civil war, and the Khmer Rouge – its cadres swelling with those driven to desperation by the bombings ― would go on to massacre the ruling classes first.

Pakistan isn’t Cambodia. Nor can external threats dislodge the state (though the state’s own branches may swat at each other plenty). But as drones continue their assault on FATA and Waziristan, the US is going down the same route that led it to misery forty years ago in Southeast Asia. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that in 312 drone strikes, of which an incredible 260 have been under Barack Obama, over 3,000 people have been killed – 175 being children.

Leon Panetta still calls the drones ‘precise’, and in his casual, unforced way, ‘the only game in town’ for disrupting al-Qaeda. This jars badly with US Army General David Petraeus’s advisor David Kilcullen telling Congress, ‘Since 2006, we’ve killed 14 senior al-Qaeda leaders using drone strikes; in the same time period, we’ve killed 700 Pakistani civilians in the same area.’ Panetta’s ‘precise’, then, means slaughtering fifty Pakistanis for one leader, their dreams and aspirations going unrealized forever.

Kilcullen’s theory, that the drones create more enemies than kill them, doesn’t concern itself with law or morality. It is grounded in logic. But by operating unmanned robots using joysticks far away, the Obama administration thinks it prevents body-bags coming home on American television. It certainly finds drones morally ambiguous enough to joke about: in 2010, President Obama threatened his daughters’ potential love interests with ‘boys (…), two words for you: Predator drones.’ It is by embracing drones as cheap, easy, and bloodless ― as the lighter bits in one’s party speech material ― that both the Obama administration and the American people grant it acceptance. It is instead not only illegal, amoral, and counter-productive, it also ensures that the idea of America remains poisonous to ordinary Pakistanis everywhere.

And that’s just grazing the surface. Case studies, including excellent ones by Notre Dame Law School’s Mary Ellen O’Connell, describe a process that is considered irredeemable by those who justify it the hardest. The remote ‘pilots’ work in videogame conditions, double-check with unreliable ground intelligence, and often defer to the computer’s assessment, an example being whether a belligerent is armed or not. Operations are done in conjunction with contractors that have no knowledge of international conflict laws, are bound by no code, and, subjectively put, care nothing for human life. And one doesn’t need psychoanalysis to know how much physical and social distance absolves would-be murderers. Under no threat of attack, actually under no threat of the victim being able to influence their lives in any meaningful way, the pilots fire into ‘rural, Muslim Pakistan’. Drone operators never see with their own eyes, then, the people they are authorized to kill.

The blame, though, starts with us. The drone strikes receive a passive, pathetic sort of support from our leadership, operated out from our own airbases. ‘Collateral damage worries you Americans, it doesn’t worry me,’ our own president says. Thus the bulwark of the Islamic Republic, guarantor of Pakistanis everywhere, proudly relinquishes himself of any such obligation. And besides the odd complaint from the Foreign Office, any campaign from our diplomatic circles against the strikes is non-existent. The more we make the ‘sovereignty’ defence to save face rather than actually uphold international law, the more we diminish any perception of our sovereignty in the eyes of the world.

But maybe the saddest development of the drone wars is how fragmented we’ve let ourselves become. Where we should do the obvious and stand against drone attacks ‘as one man’, to paraphrase Jinnah (badly), we instead let militants killing us justify drones killing us. Those with the strongest anti-drone rhetoric, like the Tehreek-e-Insaf and the religious parties, are objectionable to the left. But hating those who hate drone attacks shouldn’t push otherwise rational human beings to support those drones either. And many conservatives let down their own cause too, by tiptoeing around a brand of militancy that refuses to recognize even the idea of Pakistan. There is a middle ground, and it’s defined by holding Pakistani lives sacred: uninfringeable by either anti-state militants or Predator drones.

But to act on the middle ground and neutralize both doesn’t make for catchy headlines. It takes years and years of sustained development, reallocating the centre’s resources to the northern areas, and maybe even reforming our anti-terror sentencing mechanisms into less of a joke. It means our diplomats begin a concerted effort to condemn the strikes and raise awareness about it in the rest of the world. It means starting a dialogue with local stakeholders and acting with compassion towards their interests. And it means realizing, for both Americans and Pakistanis, that the rationale for drone strikes is an inherently false one.

Though no one seems to have had the patience to try any of this yet, self-proclaimed realists would dismiss all this as simplistic. Henry Kissinger, realism’s greatest cheerleader, was instrumental to bombing Cambodia. Yet for all the arbitrary pain and suffering caused, Mr. Kissinger himself remains alive and well.