Pakistan: Between Drones and Deus

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.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

3 thoughts on “Pakistan: Between Drones and Deus”

  1. I think that the case of drones is an incredibly important issue which has generally been minimised in the mainstream media – who, along with almost everyone else, think that it isn’t ‘real’ war. I really don’t see a qualitative distinction between drone bombings and those carried out by manned fighter jets – yet this removal of military personnel from the sky above the bomb site to a robot command centre in Nevada seems to make all the difference in coverage of the strikes, and in their legal status.

    The very real effects of drone strikes on the victims, and the political and legal no-mans land they operate in, are issues in urgent need of address. As are worries about the broader effects of a shift to a warfare which, for the aggressor, is more mediated through technology (see this Spiegel series on drones,1518,682420,00.html), more remote from the putative enemy and less ‘real’ than ever before – and which for the victim is more arbitrary, chaotic, brutal and irrational. It seems that faced with being attacked from above by robots, the only possible method of reprisal is attacking the interests, infrastructure and population of the aggressor nation itself. In this sense the drone finds its perfect antithesis and Nemesis in the suicide bomber.

    1. The reason that they don’t receive much negative media attention is because the US military insists they are highly effective and that civilian casualties are minimal. Most media sources seem happy to go along with this. After all, if you happen to be in the vicinity of a ‘terrorist’ you are probably up to no good. Hell fire for you.

  2. Great interview

    Gareth Porter, “US Plan for High-Risk Raids into Pakistan Is More Than Psywar” :

    Daily Press Briefing: December 17, 2010
    start at 18:44
    19:20 :
    JOURNALIST : “No, I meant the boots on Pakistani soil.”
    CROWLEY : “I just said that”

    There is ambiguity in the phrase “troops on the ground”, as to whether that means regular troops or special forces, but it seems to me that boots are boots.

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