Friday, June 27, 2014

The alternative to US drone strikes in Waziristan

Pakistanis displaced by a government offensive waited for packages of food and cash in Bannu.

Actually, there are two realistically available alternatives to US drone strikes. One alternative is to give the Taliban—both its Afghan and Pakistani wings—an undisturbed safe haven in the border regions of northwest Pakistan within which it can murder and intimidate its local opponents with impunity and from which it can launch attacks on civilians and other targets both in Afghanistan and the rest of Pakistan without interference. The other alternative is conventional military action by the Pakistani army, which has been rare but which does happen occasionally, usually when a major Taliban atrocity in Pakistan has prodded to Pakistani government into reacting.

I don't mean to suggest that this comparison yields an easy and obvious conclusion. All three of these alternatives—US drone strikes, passive inaction, and large-scale military action by the Pakistani army—have serious moral and political costs and other drawbacks, and none of them really offers prospect of fully solving the crucial problems involved.

People who oppose US drone strikes in the border regions of northwest Pakistan (and elsewhere) have emphasized the human and political costs of the drone program in very strong terms. Of course there really are such costs; and there is a plausible case to be made that, on balance, US drone strikes against the Taliban do more harm than good. But any serious consideration of the moral and political dilemmas involved would also have to take into account the consequences and implications of the realistically available alternatives. I don't think it's unfair to say that many opponents of US drone strikes fail to confront those dilemmas seriously, even when they don't simply ignore them.

On the other hand, there is a good deal of evidence that many people living in the affected border regions of Pakistan do take those alternatives into account. And one result is that their attitudes toward US drone strikes are often, at the very least, quite ambivalent—to an extent that many opponents of these drone strikes in the US and elsewhere (including other parts of Pakistan) would probably find surprising. Here's one report about this, and it would be easy to cite others that present a similar picture
National surveys find that Pakistanis are overwhelmingly opposed to CIA drone strikes against suspected militants in the tribal badlands close to the Afghan border. The strikes are seen by many as an abuse of sovereignty, a symbol of American arrogance and the cause of civilian deaths. So when Sofia Khan, a school administrator from Islamabad, travelled with hundreds of anti-drone campaigners to a ramshackle town bordering the restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) last October she was stunned by what some tribesmen there had to say.

One man from South Waziristan heatedly told her that he and his family approved of the remote-controlled aircraft and wanted more of them patrolling the skies above his home. Access to the tribal regions is very difficult for foreign journalists; but several specialists and researchers on the region, who did not want to be identified, say there is at least a sizeable minority in FATA who share that view.

Surveys are also notoriously difficult to carry out in FATA. A 2009 poll in three of the tribal agencies found 52% of respondents believed drone strikes were accurate and 60% said they weakened militant groups. Other surveys have found much lower percentages in favour. But interviews by The Economist with twenty residents of the tribal areas confirmed that many see individual drone strikes as preferable to the artillery barrages of the Pakistani military. They also insisted that the drones do not kill many civilians—a view starkly at odds with mainstream Pakistani opinion. “No one dares tell the real picture,” says an elder from North Waziristan. “Drone attacks are killing the militants who are killing innocent people.” [....]

In 2010 a group of politicians and NGOs published a “Peshawar Declaration” in support of drones.  [JW: For the text of the Peshawar Declaration, which did endorse US drone strikes but covered a much wider range of subjects, see here.]  Life soon became difficult for the signatories. “If anyone speaks out they will be eliminated,” says Said Alam Mehsud, one of the organisers, who was forced to leave Pakistan for a time. [....]
Why might some people in those border regions feel that way? Well, it's worth considering, in concrete terms, what the alternatives look like on the ground. Here's a report in today's New York Times, "As Pakistan Advances Against Taliban, Fleeing Civilians Pour Into Northern Towns":
Pakistan stepped up its drive against the Taliban in North Waziristan on Thursday with heavy strikes and a commando raid on Miram Shah, the district’s largest town, in what military officials described as the prelude to a major ground offensive. [....]

The advance was the army’s first major thrust into the center of Miram Shah, a hub of militant activity, and was an escalation after days of a relative lull in operations to allow civilians to flee.

The military said that 456,000 displaced people had registered for aid, making it Pakistan’s biggest conflict-driven humanitarian crisis since a previous push against the Taliban in 2009.

But in Bannu, a town on the edge of Waziristan where a majority of refugees have arrived, officials said the figure had already surpassed 500,000 by Thursday morning. Rents have tripled and transport costs soared in the past week as thousands of families cram into rented accommodation, or with relatives. Many complained bitterly about their conditions.[....]

So far, the military operation has mostly involved airstrikes against remote militant compounds in North Waziristan that, a spokesman in Rawalpindi told reporters on Thursday, had resulted in the deaths of 327 fighters and just 10 soldiers.

But the number and identity of those killed could not be confirmed because North Waziristan is effectively sealed off to the outside world, including journalists. Some fleeing tribesmen said the military strikes had killed civilians as well as militants.

The next step, military officials said, is a major ground assault into the towns of Miram Shah and Mir Ali. “Both towns would be cleared in one go, simultaneously,” said a senior military official in Peshawar.

But in Bannu, fleeing tribesmen indicated that many Taliban fighters had already left the area.

“The Taliban seemed to know about this operation before we did,” said Muhammad Rafique, a tribal elder from Miram Shah, who described how Taliban fighters had fled before most civilians. [....]

What remains unclear, however, is whether the Pakistani offensive will target the Haqqani network, a Taliban-allied group that focuses its attacks in Afghanistan and that has longstanding ties with Pakistani intelligence. In Washington, a senior Obama administration official said on the condition of anonymity that there were indications that the main Pakistani military spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, had tipped off senior Haqqani commanders before the operation [....]

The refugee flood has also spilled into Afghanistan. The United Nations refugee agency in Kabul says that about 65,000 people have crossed into Khost Province — an embarrassment to Pakistanis after years of Afghan refugee traffic in the other direction, but also a source of worry about Taliban fighters escaping the military operation. [....]
Again, I'm not suggesting that any of this constitutes a clear or decisive argument in favor of continuing US drone strikes against the Taliban in these border regions of Pakistan. On the contrary, the point is that all the available options (or any combinations of them) are unattractive, unpleasant, and unsatisfactory. Their implications and likely consequences are complex, uncertain, and difficult to assess clearly. And all of them present difficult and intractable moral and political dilemmas. But any discussions of US drone strikes worth taking seriously should be willing to confront these moral and political dilemmas fully and honestly.  Yes, life is complicated.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub