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The drone call!

| by Yasmeen Ali

( July 18, 2013, Lahore, Sri Lnaka Guardian) The report by the Abbottabad Commission about the raid on Osama bin Laden’s house, leaked at Al-Jazeera News website was the new media play-card. Much is being said and written about it. The report quotes General (retd) Ahmad Shuja Pasha, who headed Pakistan’s premier Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency at the time of bin Laden’s killing in 2011, telling investigators that drone strikes had their uses. Though there were no written agreements, there was a political understanding, between America and Pakistan, it said.

Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat and US envoy to the Pakistan and Afghanistan region, coined the term, “AfPak,” understanding that the theatre of war extended to both ends of the Durand Line. He understood that it was the eastern side, which served as the backyard for militants’ sanctuaries. Geography played a huge part in this arrangement. Battle fought by the US and its allies was focused on taking over the heartlands of Taliban in Afghanistan. The provinces in southeast of Afghanistan are unsuitable for guerrilla warfare, mostly comprising of plains. Adjoining the Hindu Kush with passes to Pakistan’s tribal belt offered the perfect sanctuary to retreat and regroup. A strategy was developed to destroy the supply lines of the militants and then wipe out their sanctuaries through drone strikes in the tribal areas. Unfortunately, the drones killed more civilians than it killed militants. 

Damning evidence against the intelligence gathering, targeting the militants in Pakistan via drone was brought to light in March 2011 when 40 people were killed in a drone attack attending a tribal meeting in North Waziristan, mostly civilians. The intelligence gathering on potential targets is obviously faulty.

The core question is: who makes the call to attack and on whom? According to Dr Gareth Porter, the CIA operations directorate under the programme, “allowed directorate to collect the intelligence on potential targets in the Fata, interpret its own intelligence and then make lethal decisions based on that interpretation - all without any outside check on the judgments it was making, even from CIA's own directorate of intelligence. Officials from other intelligence agencies have sought repeatedly to learn more about how the operations directorate was making targeting decisions but were rebuffed, according to the source” (published Al-Jazeera November 3, 2010).

The CIA determines upon the target based on two methods. The first is dubbed as a ‘personality strike’. These targets are terrorists whose identity has been unmistakably established through many means available, including human intelligence and visual surveillance. In a ‘personality strike’, the CIA knows exactly who it is hitting. There are no ambiguities involved. The second is the ‘signature strike’. ‘In these strikes, the decision to target is based on the behaviour patterns and circumstantial evidence. Positive identification is lacking. The CIA, therefore, does not always know who it is attacking.

According to an absorbing report by NBC News, “Part of the analysis involves crunching data to make connections between the unidentified suspects and other known terrorists and militants. The agency can watch, for example, as an unknown person frequents places, meets individuals, makes phone calls and sends emails, and then match those against other people linked to the same calls, emails and meetings.”

Targets killed by drone aircrafts of whose identity cannot be determined fall under the term, ‘other militants’. Citing copies of top-secret US intelligence records, a McClatchy report in April 2013 also concluded that the CIA had killed hundreds of unidentified people in Pakistan and Afghanistan in drone strikes. Signature strike killings account for greater number of deaths in the tribal areas of Pakistan. How can the ‘other militants’ be a possible threat to anyone? Can it be justified by any moral, ethical or legal standards to write them off as collateral damage? Zeroing on to militants is one thing as in personality strikes (even if one overlooks the violation of sovereignty), but can a flawed system of intelligence gathering be supported that continues taking of innocent lives as signature strikes reveal?

In May 2013, new US guidelines for strikes abroad for targeting non-Americans try to target individuals, rather than groups seemingly suspicious, thereby reducing the number of ‘signature strikes’ were introduced. The ‘Presidential Policy Guidance’ signed by President Barack Obama, nonetheless, uses vague terms that offer many an alley that can be used by officials. The use of term like ‘continuing and imminent’ for a threat leaves the door wide open for different interpretations. Who determines continuing and imminent? The term imminent implies ‘ready to take place’. How can something ready to take place be of a continuing nature? A threat of a continuing nature cannot be imminent. Who determines the degree of threat? Does each perceived threat, real or feared, deserve taking away of lives many of whom are completely innocent? If the answer is no, how can the US justify signature strikes? Even if continuing and imminent are mutually exclusive of each other, how does one determine continuity and over what period of time do we measure it? I am baffled as to how Obama, graduate of the Harvard Law School himself, could have failed to see the pitfalls of such loosely constructed ‘Policy Guidelines’.

The US should look into this policy that has raised anti-American feelings to a level that is unprecedented in Pakistan. The US may like to consider the fact that any democratic leadership is answerable to the masses that elect them - and the democratically-elected leaders of Pakistan will be losing the confidence of those who elected them to office, should they fail to deliver on their basic electoral promise. The sense of dignity and honour of the people must be restored. This must not continue to be violated. The entire nation must not be held hostage and punished for a situation not of their making. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has hinted at a change in the existing drone policy, however, he has not spelled out what and how this change is to come about.

If the strikes taper off after 2014, it will clearly be seen as a step to suit US interest and not one that seeks to look after interest of both Pakistan and US. The question here is: how important this perception is among Pakistanis to the American government at the eve of its proposed exit from Afghanistan? My analysis would be; not much.

John Brennan in a statement defending the USA's use of drones to target and kill suspected militants stated: "President Obama believes that done carefully, deliberately and responsibly, we can be more transparent and still ensure our nation's security.” Transparency does not seem to exist in the choice of targeting in a signature strike, as for national security; what of the security of the innocent Pakistanis being killed if one may ask Mr Brennan?

The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled “A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan”.


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