By Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal
Bilateral ties between Pakistan and the United States can best be defined as a roller coaster affair. Now, this relationship is poised for another dip, this time on the issue of drone attacks. Over the years, this issue has incrementally been shifting position from periphery to spotlight. More anti-drone voices are being raised from within American civil society than any other country. During recent elections in Pakistan, it was one of the major campaign issues. People of Pakistan have endorsed the political parties which anchored around ‘anti-drone attack’ rhetoric.
One such party runs the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the main recipient province of drone attacks. Chief Minister of this province said that his party would have shot down the US drones if it had a government at the centre. Imran Khan, the chairman of the political party ruling this province, has urged Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to take the US drone attacks in Pakistan as top most national issue.
It is interesting that a helping voice for the new government of Pakistan came from none other than President Hamid Karzai. In an interview to a private TV channel of Pakistan, Karzai fully endorsed the point of view of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on drone attacks. He further said that the way war is being pursued against the militants, there is no likelihood of a fruitful end to the ongoing conflict.
Analysts regard the drone attack of May 29 and June 7 as an American bid to gauge the will of new political leadership and sabotage Pakistan’s efforts to engage Taliban in negotiations. Attack on June 07 coincided with the oath taking of new cabinet in Islamabad; and attack on May 29 targeted Tehrik-i -Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s second in command Waliur Rehman, a proponent of negotiations with the government of Pakistan.
Perception has it that both these attacks had a symbolic value as well. It put across the American messages that: it couldn’t care less even if the people of Pakistan have over whelmingly empowered the anti-drone political parties; and any Taliban leader who shows inclination towards peace negotiations with Pakistan, without American blessing, shall be exterminated. Furthermore, these attacks came only days after President Obama’s “Crossroads” address pledging restraint in the employment of drones; thus exposing the gap between American articulation and action.
Americans are once again wrong in ascertaining the public sentiment. Waliur Rehman fame attack has caused serious political reaction in Pakistan, especially after John Kerry’s statement defending the employment of drones. First effect was delay in Kerry’s visit to Islamabad; and second was withdrawal of talks offer by the TTP. June 07 attack came just two days after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had urged upon the US to call off the drone campaign. This attack has invoked a demarche to the American Charge d’ Affairs in Islamabad; a statement released by the Foreign Office said that the “Government of Pakistan strongly condemns the drone strikes which are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Now John Kerry is expected to visit Pakistan towards the end of current month. He is likely to bring along fresh or at least revamped proposals for tactical employment of drones in the border regions of Pakistan.
Connivance from within Pakistan’s politico-military leadership also stands amply exposed. Recently, former President Pervez Musharraf has admitted to have given permission to the US for its drone campaign, though for ‘limited period’. Bob Woodward wrote in his book ‘Obama’s Wars–The inside Story’, that ex-CIA Director Mike Hayden visited President Zardari in New York, “Kill the seniors,” Zardari said. “Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.” However, back home, in a recent interview to a private TV channel, President Zardari said that any understanding between the two countries for drone attacks was not “in his information”.
Earlier, on May 9, High Court of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province declared the US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas as a war crime and directed the federal government and the security forces to ensure a halt to these attacks in addition to raising the issue at the UN Security Council and the General Assembly.
Apparently, there is no military solution to these drone attacks; likewise, there may be no easy diplomatic option either. The quickest solution would be asking Americans to provide drones to Pakistan alongside operational wherewithal. The operational control over these vehicles should be vested in Pakistan’s military and target selection could be done jointly through intelligence sharing.
The new government is in a state of quandary. It has a responsibility towards the people of Pakistan who voted it into power on an anti drone attack agenda. Unless the US cedes face saving space for the new government of Pakistan, the Pak-US relationship is in for another tail-spin.