New recruiting tool for militants?

US drone attacks in Pakistan are counter-productive and only help the militants’ cause.

Studies show that the survivors of drone strikes suffer from long-term psychological trauma [EPA]

US drone attacks in the tribal belt of Pakistan have been unpopular with the Pakistani public for predictable reasons: They violate the country’s national sovereignty; they are conducted by a so-called ally, namely the US; and growing evidence shows that they cause more harm than good in countering terrorism, because the high number of civilian casualties helps recruit for jihadi groups. 

The November 1 drone strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and three others, has received condemnation from Pakistan for another reason: the timing. The Pakistani government claims that the drone strike came just a day before it was scheduled to send a three member delegation to start peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban.

Strongly condemning the strike, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan blamed the US for killing the “peace process”. Imran Khan, the leader of Tehreek-e-Insaf, the party that heads the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Pakistani province that has the core NATO supply routes to Afghanistan, has asked the federal government to block these routes unless the US stops the drone attacks. Despite the public outcry in Pakistan, not much change is expected in US policy.

No leverage

In theory, Pakistan has been a key partner of the US-led “war on terror” since September 11, 2001. In response to President George W Bush’s ultimatum that, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” General Pervez Musharraf, who led the country at the time, opted for the former.

Many [Pakistanis] believe that Pakistan’s military and  government have given approval to the US to carry out these drone attacks, and that these public expressions of outrage are just a pretence.

As a partner in the war on terror, Pakistan supported many of the US policies aimed at curtailing the Taliban’s hold on the tribal belts, including launching military operations in areas viewed to be the Taliban’s stronghold. Another major support has been the use of Pakistan’s roads for transporting NATO supplies to Afghanistan, which has been instrumental for sustaining US troops in that country.

Despite cooperating on these fronts, successive Pakistani governments have had limited bargaining power with the US. They have failed to convince it to amend its policies towards Pakistan in view of its support for the war on terror. The fact that the current protests by Pakistan’s government, are not expected to lead to any changes in US policy, has to be understood in this context. 

The question, therefore, is why doesn’t Pakistan, which has great geo-strategic importance, have any bargaining leverage with the US, when it comes to asserting its demands on critical national security issues?

The answer to this partially rests in Pakistan’s weak economy, whereby loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank often become critical lifelines for the government. Good relations with the US helps in securing those loans. 

Military’s influence

The country’s economic survival is not, however, the primary issue limiting Pakistan’s ability to bargain effectively with the US. The real hurdle here is the strange nature of the democratic process in Pakistan. Years of military rule have left the political structures and elites very weak. Even when the military is not ruling the country, it has a major influence on the political arena. Assurances have to be given by the civilian politicians, that the military’s core interests wouldn’t be touched. Despite giving these assurances, ruling governments still live in constant fear of a coup.

Civilian governments also know that the US has historically not been shy of supporting military regimes in Pakistan as long as they serve its interests. This was evident in the US’ support for General Zia ul-Haq’s regime during the cold-war period, and for Musharrafs regime in the post September 11 period.

Al Jazeera’s guide to who’s who among the
top ranks of the Pakistani Taliban

Additionally, US aid historically goes up when Pakistan is under military rule rather than a democratic government. Keeping the US on its side is thus seen to be critical by the government to ensure their survival against a potential military coup. Thus, the two mainstream political parties, namely Pakistan Muslim League (PML, also known as Nawaz group) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), may raise a hue and cry about US policies, but they dont push too far because of their domestic vulnerability. They know that an ever eager military is always waiting in the wings, for external encouragement, to get back into power.

Given this political dynamic, and the influence that the political elites and the public believe the US has in determining who rules Pakistan, the strong protest lodged by the government against the latest drone attack, is unlikely to be taken to its logical limit, namely to block the NATO supply routes into Afghanistan until the drone attacks stop.

Pakistanis, therefore, are very cynical as to the governments ability to do anything. Many believe that Pakistan’s military and government have given approval to the US to carry out these drone attacks, and that these public expressions of outrage are just a pretence. However, the ruling party placed a much higher emphasis on resisting US’ drone policy in its election campaign. Further, Imran Khan is known to be very ideologically committed to challenging the use of drones on Pakistani territory, and has long been arguing in favour of having a dialogue with the Taliban. Given that these two parties were leading the peace initiative, it is quite likely that the outrage they express is real. However, for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose primary concern remains the survival of his government, following the resistance route proposed by Imran Khan is likely to prove difficult. 

New reports by human rights groups and others, show that drone attacks cause major harm to the civilian population, and range from being morally deplorable to amounting to actual war crimes.

Human cost

At a broader level, when looking at the US drone policy in Pakistan, Yemen, or other countries, the real questions are not just about the future of US relationships with these countries, but more importantly they are about the moral dimensions of the policy and its effectiveness in countering terrorism. As we are starting to get more evidence-based studies on the impact of US drones on the communities living in the targeted areas, answers to both these critical questions are increasingly turning out to be negative.

Restricted access to the tribal belt for journalists and researchers have made it difficult to gather evidence on the impact of drones. However, new reports by human rights groups and others, show that drone attacks cause major harm to the civilian population, and range from being morally deplorable to amounting to actual war crimes.

A major study conducted by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, shows that US drone attacks lead to heavy civilian deaths and casualties.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) estimates that from June 2004 to mid-September 2012, “drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals causing major physical pain and long-term psychological trauma. 

The study notes that the people living in these targeted areas have high levels of stress and fear. The study also captures the economic hardships faced by those who suffer in these attacks. The growing number of civilian casualties, who include cases such as that of a grandmother killed by a drone while working in the fields with her grandchildren, is making organisations such as Amnesty International take up a strong position against the use of drones. Serious moral questions are being raised about the use of this strategy.

But, the strategy is also equally questionable in terms of the claim that it eliminates Islamic militancy.

Failure to crush militancy

The drone strikes are defended on the premise that they help avoid a more prolonged battle on the ground, and because of their targeted nature, they are more effective in rooting out prominent militants. The evidence, however, does not support this claim. The Stanford/NYU study shows that only 2 percent of the individuals killed in the drone attacks in Pakistan, would rise to a senior leadership role.

Additionally, the use of drones, and the resulting civilian casualties, builds a collective consensus within the local communities that the US is unjust. This helps the militant groups attract younger recruits. The perceived injustice of the US, in places such as  Palestine and Israel, its use of force in Muslims countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and its policies towards Pakistan, have repeatedly come up as core concerns, in my research that focuses on individuals joining militant groups in Pakistan.

As I show in my book, The Rational Believer, it is not the madrasas that breed jihad in Pakistan: Recruits to militant groups come from all different socio-economic and educational backgrounds, many are even educated in the West. The common threat linking them all is a strong sense of injustice about Western, and in particular, US policies towards Muslim countries.

Continued drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal belt help aggravate the same sense of injustice, and thus help, rather than prevent, further recruitment to militant groups. Imran Khan is right: The way to peace in Pakistan rests in engaging in a genuine dialogue with the Taliban – the sooner the US appreciates that, the better it is for the global war on terror and the stability of Pakistan.

Dr Masooda Bano is University Research Lecturer at Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford. Her book, The Rational Believer: Choices and Decisions in the Madrasas of Pakistan explains basis of recruitment for jihad in Pakistan.