It’s not drone strikes, stupid!

Why patriotic Pakistanis must channel their anger against the military-jihadi complex

It is reasonable to argue that patriotic Pakistanis are angry with the United States for conducting a campaign of drone attacks in their country, even if the intended targets of the attacks are taliban militants and if the impact on innocent civilians (via the Lowy Interpreter) is smaller than what the Pakistani media makes it out to be.

But it is entirely another thing to justify acts of terrorism—like Faisal Shahzad’s attempt to explode a car bomb at New York’s Times Square—which is what the Pakistani foreign minister did. “This is a blow back” said Shah Mehmood Qureishi. “This is a reaction. This is retaliation. And you could expect that. Let’s not be naive. They’re not going to sort of sit and welcome you eliminate them. They’re going to fight back.” Even as the US authorities try to find answers to when Mr Shahzad was ‘radicalised’, his own confession that he was motivated by anger against drone strikes is enough of an explanation.

This, however, does not absolve Pakistan. On the contrary, it is a damning indictment of the Pakistani government’s policies—that continue to this day—that have resulted in it being rightly accorded the dubious distinction of being the epicentre of international terrorism.

First, contrary to what is made out to be, Pakistan didn’t start employing jihadi groups during the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s—it has used Islamist militancy and terrorism as an instrument of its foreign policy since 1947 (Read this review of Praveen Swami’s book). But it is true that it was during the anti-Soviet war that the Pakistani military establishment acquired—from the United States and others—the training, mindset, resources and infrastructure to conduct international terrorism. The United States is responsible for helping Pakistan build that infrastructure, but its roots are as old as Pakistan is. (See Sadanand Dhume’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal)

Second, not only did General Musharraf’s regime refuse to dismantle the jihadi infrastructure he failed to take any meaningful steps to deradicalise the population. The school syllabus continued to inject poison. Madrassas and mosques linked to extremist organisation continue to spew venom against the United States, Israel and India for crimes real and imagined (largely the latter). All this is amplified by the ‘free’ media of which the less said the better. Cleaning up all this would have been a Herculean task for the civilian government of Asif Ali Zardari—but it doesn’t even stand a chance now that General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has seized effective control of the levers of power.

These are ideal conditions for someone like Faisal Shahzad to acquire all that is required to set off a bomb in New York.

Finally, the United States has been forced to conduct drone strikes because the Pakistani army refuses to go after al-Qaeda and taliban militants that are holed out in its territory. These strikes would be unnecessary—at least by the United States—if the Pakistani army were to genuinely engage in a real war against the jihadis and militants that operate in Pakistan’s cities as much as in FATA.

The Pakistani army’s refusal to act against the jihadi groups, therefore, lies at the root of why patriotic Pakistanis end up getting angry with the United States. Its support for and tolerance of the jihadi groups makes Pakistan the most attractive destination for wannabe terrorists. To complete the circle, the Pakistani government and media can be counted on to deflect the blame towards the United States, setting the stage for more anti-Americanism.

The thoughtful among the patriotic Pakistanis must understand that if their country is regularly in the dock for being a source of international terrorism, it is because their government is in a deadly embrace with jihadi groups—what we call the military-jihadi complex. Destroying this complex, demobilising the jihadi groups and deradicalising Pakistani society is more in Pakistan’s interests than it is in India’s and the United States’s. For its part, the Obama administration ought to realise that building power plants in Pakistan is a poor substitute for this urgent, necessary task.

The politics of drones

A political weapon sought and granted

A brief word on the the drones that Robert Gates offered Pakistan during his recent—perhaps worst—trip to Islamabad. The offer was more political theatre than it was of military significance.

Why? Because—as this old post argues—Pakistan does not need armed drones to conduct counter-insurgency operations within its own territory. It has enough numbers of competent ground forces, if not teams of special forces, to conduct the kind of decapitation strikes against top jihadi leaders, if its military establishment wants to. And if they do want drones, Pakistan has some reasonably good home-made ones. China’s hand, in any case, will continue to be of the helping kind.

The whole demand for drones—volubly made by the Zardari-Gilani government—is political. It allows Messrs Zardari & Gilani to be seen, by the Pakistani people, as demanding something from the United States. It also allows them to be seen, by the American people, as demanding the kind of things they need to fight the jihadis and the Taliban. It works even if, and especially if, the demand were not granted.

If the Pakistanis are a sharp bunch, so is Mr Gates. “You want drones? Here, take these drones.” Few people in Pakistan or the United States are likely to read beyond the headline, and realise that the drones he offered are not quite the drones knocking out the taliban-types in Waziristan. Surely, didn’t the United States give the Pakistanis the tools they need to fight those violent extremists (as they are now called)?

Mr Zardari might have even declared victory. Unfortunately for him, the military establishment is not likely to allow that.

The absurdity of giving Predator drones to Pakistan

It’s the inclination, stupid!

It is one thing for President Asif Ali Zardari to say it. It is entirely another thing to take him seriously. We are talking about Mr Zardari’s Archimedes-like statement: “Give us the drones and we will take out the militants ourselves.” Some visiting US officials and journalists have found this demand promising.

It is also extremely absurd.

The United States is using unmanned aerial vehicles to attack specific al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders because it cannot use inexpensive, conventional methods like getting a bunch of troops to go there and arrest or kill the targeted individuals. The United States cannot do it because they are in Pakistani territory, and sending troops without an agreement with the Pakistani government amounts to an invasion. An invasion is not only illegal under international law, but also causes the Pakistani government and the people to get very worked up. The use of Predator & Reaper drones, is somehow considered to be less of a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. (A aero-geopolitical version of the vexed legal question: when is rape a rape?)

The Pakistani government, by definition, does not violate Pakistani sovereignty when it storms a building in its own territory. It also does not, generally, violate international law. It might get some Pakistani people worked up, but no more than if it were to use drones for the purpose. So if Mr Zardari really wants to take out the militants, then there’s nothing—save the Pakistani military establishment—really stopping him. But if the military establishment is stopping him from getting troops to storm Taliban leaders, it is also going to stop him from using drones for the purpose. The problem then, is not the non-availability of drones, but the unwillingness of the Pakistani military establishment. Mr Zardari & his civilian friends can’t fly those drones, can they?

Now unless the idea is to paint the American drones in Pakistani colours while flying them out of Pakistani air bases, but controlling them remotely from bases in the US, Mr Zardari’s idea doesn’t make much sense.