By S. M. Hali

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US has conducted to-date 334 drone strikes on Pakistan since 2004 and according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2,496 and 3,202 persons have been killed, out of which collateral damage has been to the tune of minimum 482 and a maximum of 832, out of these 175 children have reportedly been killed while up to 1,318 persons have been injured. There were 52 drone strikes under the Bush administration, while the Obama regime has launched 282 strikes so far. The United States has been relying more and more on the drone attack because it does not put the lives of its own personnel at risk in its War on Terrorism campaign, seeking to defeat Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border. The covert CIA run operation has caused serious tension between the US and Pakistan. WikiLeaks, the unconfirmed whistleblower has alleged Pakistan's government publicly condemns these attacks, but has secretly shared intelligence with the United States and also supposedly allowed the drones to operate from Shamsi Airfield in Balochistan. Following the showdown of 26/11(the attack on Pakistani check-post at Salala, in which 24 Pakistani army personnel were killed), Pakistan forced the US to vacate Shamsi Airfield as well stopped the ground lines of communication of NATO supplies through Pakistan.

Anti-American sentiments have been on the rise since then and although the US had halted drone strikes following the 26/11 incident, yet resumed them on 10 January 2012, with a vengeance.

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There is serious debate regarding the efficacy of the drone strikes. Reports of the number of militants versus civilian casualties differ. In a 2009 opinion article, Daniel L. Byman of the Brookings Institute claimed that drone strikes may have killed "10 or so civilians" for every "mid- and high-ranking (Al-Qaeda and Taliban) leader." On the contrary, the New America Foundation has estimated that 80 percent of those killed in the attacks were militants. Rahman Malik, erstwhile Pakistan’s Minister for Interior and currently the Prime Minister’s Consultant, claims that a majority of the targets of drone attacks are civilians. The Pakistani military has stated that most of those killed were hardcore Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. The CIA believes that the strikes conducted since May 2010 have killed over 600 militants and have not caused any civilian fatalities, a claim that has been rejected by all and sundry as being absurd. Experts on warfare and psyche of militants like Barbara Elias-Sanborn have cautioned that, "as much of the literature on drones suggests, such killings usually harden militants' determination to fight, stalling any potential negotiations and settlement." Militants tend to use the collateral damage factor for urging the families of the victims to join their ranks to avenge the deaths of their near and dear ones.

On the other hand, as if to rub salt in the wound, there is a concerted effort to depict drone warfare as some sort of courageous and noble act. According to US media, the Pentagon is considering awarding a Distinguished Warfare Medal to drone pilots who work on military bases often far removed from the battlefield. The US Army Institute of Heraldry chief Charles Mugno states that most combat decorations require “boots on the ground” in a combat zone, but he noted that “emerging technologies” such as drones and cyber combat missions are now handled by troops far removed from combat, thus they merit recognition.

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Contrary to propaganda, as per public aspirations and desire, Pakistan’s political, military and intelligence leadership has always been on the same page with regards to non-acceptance of drone strikes. They have repeatedly asserted that unilateral drone strikes have proved counterproductive as it results in arousing anti-American feelings among the masses with increase sympathy of the terrorists. Besides, under-mining Pakistan’s sovereignty and image of Armed Forces, it is a complete violation of international law and UN Charter.

In light of this spirit and the effort to stem the tide of trust deficit and improve Pak-US relationsPakistan has offered the US a new mechanism encompassing ‘surveillance’ of targeted operations against wanted militants as an alternative to drone strikes in the country’s tribal regions. The envisaged plan involves both the identification of targets by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the tribal areas and swapping of information with the Pakistani security agencies, leaving the armed forces of Pakistan to deal with the threat.  With its “eyes in the skies”, the US can monitor the progress of the anti-terror operation but Pakistan insists on not permitting “foreign boots on the ground” for surveillance. Such an arrangement will preclude the blemished perception in certain US quarters that Islamabad is playing a ‘double game’ in the ‘war on terror’.

Keeping the above developments in view, reportedly, the government of Pakistan is dispatching its Director General of Inter Services Intelligence (DGISI) to discuss Counter Terrorism cooperation with his CIA counterparts in Virginia. The DG ISI is expected to discuss and focus on ensuring cessation of unilateral drone attacks by USA during his meetings at Langley. It is going to be a tricky and sensitive negotiation since the US Presidential elections are round the corner and the current incumbent in the Oval office at White House would tend to exhibit a hard stance and would not agree to any drastic changes in the CIA’s drones’ campaign. However, on his part, the DG ISI in all probability will be discussing the possibility of transfer of drone technology and capacity building of Pakistani Forces along with intelligence sharing against actionable targets. This position by Pakistan belies the allegations of “Wink and Nod” by the government of Pakistan in the case of drone strikes.

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Both Pakistan and the US are focused to eliminate high-value targets associated with Al-Qaeda and other miscreants. Pakistan’s proposal focuses on a new mechanism that will enhance its liberty of action and reduce/eliminate drone strikes. The US must appreciate that the issue of drone strikes is extremely sensitive and should be handled with kid gloves, necessitating a prudent solution based on respecting Pakistan’s sovereignty.