Droning on; but miss the real source of terror
C. Raja Mohan
27 June 2012
Despite Pakistan’s protests and the objections from liberals at home and abroad, the United States is not going to end, any time soon, its drone warfare in the northwestern marches of the subcontinent.
The Obama administration has explicitly rejected the legalistic arguments against its use of drones in the war against violent extremism in Pakistan and beyond.
Like so many earlier military technologies, armed drones are here to stay as an important element of modern warfare. More than two dozen countries, including China and India, have been inspired enough by American drone warfare to develop and deploy their own unmanned aerial vehicle systems for a variety of national security purposes.
US drone warfare against Pakistan was initiated by George W. Bush when Washington began to recognise that the Pakistan army is an unreliable ally in the war against terror. During 2004-07, there were nine drone attacks on Pakistan. In 2008, the last year of the Bush presidency, they mounted to 34.
The Obama administration chose to intensify the drone attacks as it began to prepare an exit strategy from Afghanistan. During 2009-11, the first three years of the Obama administration, the number of drone attacks on Pakistan reached 241. They have continued this year after a brief lull.
There is little empathy in Washington with the Pakistani argument that drone warfare violates its territorial sovereignty. For all the posturing in Pakistan, Islamabad has not formally complained to the United Nations that the US is violating its sovereignty.
The data published by WikiLeaks some time ago had revealed that both the civilian and military leaders of Pakistan were complicit in permitting the drone attacks. Despite its public objections, Rawalpindi had in fact allowed the US to use one of its military facilities (the Shamsi airbase) to launch the drone attacks on Pakistani territory.
As it let the US rain drones on its own western borderlands, the Pakistan army kept pressing Washington to part with the drone technology. Rawalpindi was quick to sense the importance of drone technology and the urgency of acquiring it.
Pakistan’s claims on the US violation of its sovereignty have been met with Washington’s own legal arguments on the right to "self-defence". US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta reminded Pakistanis, in a speech in Delhi earlier this month, that Islamabad is not the only one concerned about its sovereignty.
The Pakistan army’s unwillingness to act against the Haqqani network and other international terror groups on its soil, Panetta has argued, leaves the US free to defend its own sovereignty and that of Afghanistan through military means.
Liberal groups in the US have questioned the legality of the drone attacks, the targeting of American citizens who are deemed terrorists, and letting a civilian organisation like the Central Intelligence Agency use military force abroad.
Last week, the US government asked a New York court to dismiss petitions from the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times seeking documents on the legal basis of the drone attacks. Citing national security considerations, Washington declared that the entire subject was classified as secret.
Whatever the merits of Washington’s argument might be, drone warfare makes Barack Obama look rather good in his campaign for a second term in the White House. The left liberal attack on his muscular anti-terror policy will surely protect Obama from any conservative fire on the right.
As Obama’s aides boast about his hands-on-approach to the war on terror, the Republicans are having a tough time arguing that the Democrat president is weak on national security. Washington’s foreign policy hawks are developing a grudging admiration for Obama as "George W. Bush on steroids".
The international legal quibbling on drone warfare by some squeamish lawyers of the UN and northern Europe can only help reinforce Obama’s image as a genuine "war president" at home.
The problem for the US is not about the domestic or international legality of drone warfare, but its limitations in compelling Pakistan to change course.
While the drones have been successful in eliminating a number of individual targets of the al-Qaeda and its associates, they have not forced Rawalpindi to dismantle the terror infrastructure.
Reports from Washington suggest that the Obama administration is now considering direct cross-border military raids on the terror sanctuaries in Pakistan’s western tribal belt. If the US Special Forces raided Osama bin Laden’s safe house on May 1, 2011, and killed him, they might now be tasked with attacking the safe havens of the Haqqani network.
Neither the drone attacks- a significant technological innovation in air power - nor direct cross-border military raids address the ultimate source of terror, the Pakistan army. They merely target the manifestation of the problem.
To force a change in Rawalpindi’s strategic behaviour, sections of the US strategic community are underlining the importance of direct pressure on the Pakistan army.
A well-known American expert on Pakistan, Christine Fair, has recently suggested sanctions against specific individuals in the Pakistan army and the ISI who are involved in supporting the terror networks and promoting nuclear proliferation.
She also called for a denial of the much-needed financial support from the International Monetary Fund, aimed to tide over the deepening economic crisis in Pakistan. Fair is also proposing an explicit American tilt towards India on the Kashmir question by recognising the Line of Control as an international border.
These steps are rather hard for the US to consider, for many in Washington have not yet given up hopes of an eventual reconciliation with the Pakistan army. Others worry about the consequences of a nuclear Pakistan becoming a failed state.
Yet, after more than $21 billion of economic and military assistance to Pakistan over the last decade and hundreds of drone attacks in recent years, there is no denying that the US options on persuading Rawalpindi to support American objectives in Afghanistan have begun to shrink.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
Courtesy: The Indian Express, June 27, 2012