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Can Pakistan shoot down U.S. drones?

Mansoor Jafar

Published: Updated:

Once again the U.S. has killed the peace in Pakistan, just when the country badly needed it. U.S. drones assassinated Waliur Rehman Mehsud, the second-in-command of Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the militant group in tribal areas engaged in fighting against Pakistan’s army to avenge the country’s support of U.S. war on terror.

Pakistan had always termed the drone attacks counterproductive since they nurture much more terrorists than they kill

Mansoor Jafar

The attack was carried out on May 29 while Pakistan’s new parliament was preparing to be sworn in with high hopes of restoring peace to the country which had been a battlefield of the U.S. war on terror for over a decade, killing over 60 thousand civilians and destroying infrastructure, economy, agriculture and above all tourism. The attack came just before Islamabad was readying to welcome the new U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, who reached the city with U.S. President Obama’s message of good wishes for the new Pakistani government.

Waliur Rehman was one of the few TTP leaders who supported the idea of negotiating with Islamabad to bring an end to the civil-war like situation in the country. And he is not the only supporter of the dialogue process with the Pakistan army whom Washington assassinated with drone strikes. Many of his like-minded contemporaries were killed in the same manner during the last nine years, shortly after they struck some kind of peace deal with Pakistan’s army and government, or were about to sign it.

TTP revokes talks offer

As expected, soon after his death was confirmed the TTP withdrew the talks offer with Pakistan and announced plans to avenge his death with the Pakistani establishment. The news cast a pall of gloom over the entire country, as Pakistan’s Prime Minister-elect Mian Nawaz Sharif termed it a conspiracy against the peace efforts of Pakistan. Opposition leader Imran Khan offered Nawaz Sharif unconditional support if he starts his third stint as prime minister of the county by announcing to shoot down U.S. drones.

Pakistan had always termed the drone attacks not only a violation of international laws and the sovereignty of the country, but also counterproductive since it nurtured much more terrorists than it killed. According to estimates, over five thousand people had been killed in drone strikes, less than four per cent of them were militants while the rest were common citizens, including women and children. But Washington had always refused to listen to its front-line ally in the war on terror, calling drone attacks an effective weapon in war on terror which it would use more and more.

History of U.S. drone attacks

U.S. began drone attacks on Pakistan in 2004 under the Bush administration, and one of the initial drone attacks killed a popular tribal chief, Maulvi Nek Muhammad, the day after he struck a peace deal with the Pakistan army, declaring to stop attacks on military establishments and convoys.

During initial years they were sparingly used but their frequency increased manifold after Obama became president in 2008. Washington had brushed aside all protests by Pakistan in this regard, sticking to its own reasons for continuing with the drone strikes.

U.S. State Department legal advisor Harold Koh says drone strikes were legal because of Washington’s right to self-defense. According to Koh, Americans are engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their affiliates, and therefore may use force consistent with self-defense under international law.

Former CIA officials state that the agency uses a careful screening process in making decisions on which individuals to kill with drone strikes. The process, carried out at the agency’s counter-terrorist center, involves up to ten lawyers who write briefs justifying the targeting of specific individuals. If the briefs’ arguments are weak, the request to target the individual is denied. Since 2008 the CIA has relied less on its list of individuals and increasingly on targeted “signatures,” or a suspect’s behavior as monitored from satellite, whose data was gathered on the basis of confirmed intelligence reports.

Global opposition to drone strikes

Interestingly, the CIA euphemistically criticizes this change in tactics, saying it resulted in fewer deaths of high-value targets and in more deaths of lower-level fighters, or “mere foot soldiers.” However, “signature” targeting has been a controversy, as drone critics claim that common citizens’ behaviors can easily be mistaken for militant signatures.

Even if the CIA’s bizarre logic is accepted, who should be held accountable for about 96 per cent of civilian deaths caused by U.S. drones? Pakistan’s condemnation of drone attacks has gradually found an increasing number of supporters from world dignitaries. Now even American politicians and intelligentsia have begun condemning drone strikes. U.S. philosopher, historian and political critic, Noam Chomsky was among the first critics of drone attacks. Recently, more Americans joined in. U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich asserted that the United States was violating international law by carrying out strikes against a country that never attacked the United States. Georgetown University professor, Gary D. Solis, asserts that since drone operators at the CIA are civilians directly engaged in armed conflict, this makes them “unlawful combatants” and possibly subject to prosecution.

A few years back, hundreds of protestors gathered outside the Creech air force base in Nevada Desert, demanding an end to drone strikes in Pakistan. However, Washington had been adamant to continue with drone strikes, and raised the budget for drone attacks in 2011, arguing that drone attacks were aimed at protecting the U.S. army in Afghanistan and were aimed at destabilizing Taliban militants in Pakistan.

Shooting down drone a far cry in Pakistan

Despite the recent uproar by new Pakistani parliament, the situation in the U.S. and statements of Pakistan’s president Asif Zardari shows drone attacks could continue for a longer time, and that most of the anti-drone statements were mere political sloganeering.

In a recent interview, President Asif Zardari, who is also the supreme commander of the Armed forces and is mandated to issue directives to shoot down the drones, said quite naively that he was unaware of any secret deal between Islamabad and Pakistan allowing drone attacks. Zardari tried to scare his countrymen by saying if a drone were shot down, then there would be repercussions.

Besides, Pakistan’s army chief, General Pervez Kayani, have often termed the war on terror as Pakistan’s own war. In a recent unusual shift of military doctrine, Pakistan’s Army has changed the 66-year old concept of biggest threat to national security. Instead of arch enemy India, the army has now identified guerrilla militancy from the tribal areas against the armed forces and civilians as the biggest threat to country’s security.

Against this backdrop, implementation of the much trumpeted demand of shooting down American drones during election campaign of right-wing political parties seems a far cry. The new government, which is confronting gigantic challenges ranging from an energy crisis to an economic crunch, will be left with no option but repeat the stereo-type rhetoric by passing the buck onto previous regimes for allowing the U.S. drone strikes to occur under international guarantees, all they can do is confess their inability to stop it.

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Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached via Twitter: @mansoorjafar

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.