SPEAKING FREELY Islamabad faces drone dilemma
By Sajjad Ashraf
Questioning the wisdom and morality of continued drone strikes, in an address at the National Defense University on May 23 President Barack Obama announced there would be "greater oversight and accountability" over the US's secret drone program.
Under the new Presidential Policy Guidance, signed a day earlier, the Pentagon will take lead in launching lethal drones, as opposed to the current practice of the CIA taking charge, declared Obama.
Referring to disproportionate civilian casualties, Obama admitted, "no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and
those in my chain of command those deaths will haunt us as long as we live".
A recent study by the law schools of New York and Stanford universities concluded that drones traumatize civilians and breed radicalism while killing just 2% of high-value targets.
Drone attacks over Pakistan's tribal areas have killed 4,700 Pakistanis since 2004, according to Senator Lindsey Graham.
As a result of Obama's announcement, the frequency of strikes will likely be markedly reduced. In the wake of 2014 US withdrawal from Afghanistan, "we will no longer have the same need for force projection," said the president.
For Pakistanis, it's not enough. The strikes, said a foreign office spokesperson, "are counterproductive, entail loss of innocent lives, and violate the principles of national sovereignty and international law".
With Pakistani sentiment, "fiercely against the drones" Senator Mushahid Hussain, Chairman of the defense committee in Pakistan's Senate, said he would only accept a cessation of drone attacks.
That is unlikely to happen, which puts Pakistan's incoming leadership in a bind.
Pakistan is living through an increasing militancy within, which most Pakistanis believe is a consequence of an unpopular partnership with the US in the "war on terror".
A relatively high voter turn out at 55% in the recent elections, compared to 44% in 2008, overwhelmingly voted for the PML-N and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). Both condemn the US drone attacks; are against Pakistan's participation in the US led war and seek new terms of engagement with Washington.
Documents presented in the Pakistan Supreme Court in March reveal that Pakistan lost over 49,000 civilians with its military suffering 15,681 casualties fighting this war. This is many times more than the combined losses of others.
Damages in destroyed infrastructure are staggering, causing much of social unrest in the country. Voting for the two major parties opposed to this war the Pakistani public has firmly demonstrated that it has no appetite for a US-sponsored military campaign.
Nawaz Sharif believes that the drone strikes over Pakistan's tribal areas is a direct infringement of Pakistan's sovereignty and must stop immediately. The continuation of the program albeit at reduced levels and under stricter guidelines poses a big challenge for Nawaz Sharif, especially in the face of Pakistan's increasingly active media.
His political rival Imran Khan, vowing to shoot down drones, blames the US for rising extremism in Pakistan. Both state publicly that fighting the militants is not the way to resolve terrorism. For Sharif "talks with the Taliban [is the] only option."
Sharif should be mindful that earlier agreements with the militants collapsed because Islamabad was not seen to disassociate from the war. If that does not happen, no agreement will hold. For the Pakistanis drones demonstrate complicity in "America's war".
Similarly the PTI, which emerged as the leading party in the sensitive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province bordering Afghanistan, is seeking consensus to begin talking to the militants.
The United States will be worried with such an approach, especially if it leads to the Pakistan army's withdrawal from tribal areas creating a power vacuum, which the militants could easily exploit to launch attacks against the coalition forces. The army cannot keep sacrificing its men in a war without end, with little public backing.
Washington would be wary of a repeat situation when overland NATO supplies were torched on Afghan supply route, some allege, with implicit consent of Pakistan security forces. In a process of withdrawal, this would be a nightmare for the US.
Appeasing Washington by publicly condemning and privately condoning drone attacks, like the previous regime did, will shorten Sharif's honeymoon with the people.
There are layers and interests, both local and foreign, in this militancy in Pakistan. Its current phase corresponds to the troubles in Afghanistan.
Despite campaigning on opposing "America's war" a visibly chastened Nawaz Sharif hinted, as much when, on May 13, he said he would support "our friends", the Americans, as they prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Secretary John Kerry is due to visit Pakistan, "to rebuild this important partnership", as soon as the new government is in place early in June, confides a PML-N source quoting American Ambassador Richard Olsen, during a meeting with Sharif. Kerry's meetings with the new leadership will test Washington's "willingness to work closely on issues of common interest".
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Sajjad Ashraf, adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore and visiting senior research fellow at the Institute f Southeast Asian Studies, is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service, 1973-2008