Yesterday I appeared on Dori Smith’s excellent Talk Nation Radio, which runs on Pacifica, to discuss the situation in Pakistan. Among other things I discussed the devastation wrought by the US drone war, the folly of seeking military solutions for political problems, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and the murder of Salman Taseer.
To date there have been 215 drone attacks, including 3 on 1 January 2011 in North Waziristan which killed 19 people. In 2010, there were 116 strikes, over twice as many as in 2009. The total deaths from the drones number over two thousand. According to reports in The News and Dawn about 98 percent of the victims are civilians, a figure confirmed by David Kilcullen, the former senior advisor on counterinsurgency to Gen. David Petraeus. According to the Brookings Institution the drones kill at a ratio of 1 militant for every 10 civilians. According to Frontier Constabulary men I spoke to last year, the drones once in a while do get their targets but their victims are largely civilians.
Important: The drones program is run by the CIA, headed by a political appointee, which is not subject to military rules of engagement. Consequently there is no oversight. They have often been used for revenge attacks, especially after insurgents bombed a CIA operation center in Afghanistan’s Khost province. UN special rapporteur Philip Alston has called for the authority to launch drones to be moved under the command of the military, so that there is at least some accountability. (see this, this and this) Peter W. Singer has likewise warned that the technology is not too sophisticated, so US is creating the precedent for similar strikes on its own soil in the future.
Many have raised the specter of another military takeover in Pakistan but I find it unlikely. Right now its convenient for the military to blame their failures on the civilian government. They also know the limits of their power. With a takeover will come expectations (1) to stop the drone attacks (2) to crush the insurgency. Both are beyond their means. I suspect a military takeover will only follow massive civilian unrest, which was expected after the earlier flooding but as yet hasn’t happened.
The military already risks disintegration because of the strain of the drone war. It has been avoiding using Pashtun forces in the tribal areas lest their ethnic loyalties diminish their will to fight. Also, it will be strained by the expectations to confront US forces at a time when Americans are threatening to bring the war to Pakistan. They only circumstances under which I see them taking over is if they are determined to stop US incursions. It is probable that constant US prodding might eventually bring the army to that point. Anatol Lieven has noted that he found Generals worried about a possibility of revolt in the ranks if the army did not take a more assertive position vis-a-vis US violations of Pakistani sovereignty. See also this excellent analysis by Lieven.