Friday, October 26, 2012

Drones: A Non-Issue in U.S. Presidential Debate Riles Pakistan

It was something both candidates could agree on. Near the end of the last debate between President Barack Obama and his opponent Mitt Romney on Monday, moderator Bob Schieffer asked the Republican presidential candidate where he stood on the U.S.’s “use of drones.”

Predator drone, Southern Afghanistan

Romney voiced his support for the President’s ongoing policy of using unmanned weapons to attack terrorist targets, saying the U.S. should be ready by “any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world.” In a conversation that ranged from U.S. education to trade with China, Obama and Romney saw eye to eye on a several foreign policy points, but none generated as little debate as the Obama Administration’s increased dependence on drone technology, which has proved to be such a nonissue in this presidential race that it merited only a few words from Romney, and none at all from the sitting President.

But if Schieffer were to bring up drones among politicians in Islamabad today, a few more sparks might fly. The U.S. has been using drones to target parts of the country that lie on the border with Afghanistan since 2004 in an ongoing campaign to root out militants working against U.S. troops and interests. Many in Pakistan say that its governments in the past eight years have been complicit in — if not covertly supportive of — the campaign, if simply by dint of the fact that it has not taken up what’s a clear breach of sovereignty with any international legal body. Most of the drone strikes take place in parts of Pakistan that are both physically and socially remote from the rest of the country. Few journalists have been permitted to go into these specially administered areas to see what the drones do firsthand, and while compiled reports from groups like the nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism put the total number of people killed in drone strikes as high as 3,365, including 176 children, these figures have been questioned by parties both inside and outside Pakistan in the absence of official data from either government.

Pakistan’s domestic debate over drone attacks gained momentum last year, when relations between the country and the U.S. soured after Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in Abbottabad. It has become even louder still in recent weeks, after cricketer turned politician Imran Khan staged a widely publicized demonstration against the strikes. Khan’s plan was to march all the way to Waziristan, a border area where most of the drone strikes are reportedly happening. Though the military stopped his thousands-strong rally from entering the area on security grounds, the campaign did bring the conversation back into the spotlight, and forced others in Pakistan’s political arena to take a position on a subject that many would prefer to avoid. “All over the country, resistance has been building to drone attacks,” says Javed Hashmi, the president of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. “Drones are killing children and creating suicide attackers. You can’t win a war this way. Now international resistance is growing, even in the U.S.”

He’s right about that. A recent Pew Global Attitudes survey found that in “17 of 20 countries, more than half disapprove of U.S. drone attacks targeting extremist leaders and groups in nations such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.” And in Pakistan, many suggest that the drone campaign, while it may be fulfilling an immediate objective of picking off militants who support the fight against U.S. troops in Afghanistan, is actually working against America’s long-term interests in the country. As reports continue to emerge of the strikes’ negative impact on civilians in the border area, people all over the country are beginning to feel fed up. “When everybody turns against [the strikes], they lose their political purpose,” says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst in Lahore. “It contributes to anti-Americanism in Pakistan.” More