The Cost of Our Drone War in Pakistan
An Interview with Ambassador Akbar Ahmed
On July 13, a U.S. drone killed two suspected militants riding a motorcycle in North Waziristan, the mountainous, tribal region in Pakistan that President Obama described as “the most dangerous place in the world.” The region is the heart of America's drone campaign in Pakistan that has killed nearly 3,000 people in the past decade and contributed to a surge of anti-American resentment in Pakistan, a recalcitrant ally in the ongoing “War on Extremism.” In his latest book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and former Pakistan Ambassador to the United Kingdom, uses 40 case studies of tribal societies to argue that drones have not pacified the region but instead inflamed an endless cycle of war. Ahmed, who relies on his experience as the former Pakistan political agent to the South Waziristan Agency, concludes that the attacks have destabilized ancient tribal hierarchies, broken fragile links between Pashtun tribes and Pakistan’s central government, and violated tribal codes of honor, resulting in devastating revenge killings and terrorism. This destabilizing element is contributing to a toxic mix of violence that has besieged a nation already contending with a host of political and economic crises. I interviewed him via e-mail.
— Wajahat Ali
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Wajahat Ali: You’re very critical of America’s drone policy and argue that it’s a war on tribal Islam, especially in Pakistan and Yemen. How is it decimating tribal life and what are the consequences?
Akbar Ahmed: I am critical on several counts, not least legal ones involving international borders. What worries me the most, however, are the moral grounds. The fact that every drone strike kills not only the intended target but also many more totally innocent people—too often women and children—is troubling. The consequences of U.S. drone policy are clear to see: It feeds into already high levels of anti-Americanism. It sustains a long line of young suicide bombers seeking revenge. Finally, along with the military actions of the central government and the deadly attacks of suicide bombers, it forces large sections of the local population to flee their homes. Already destitute communities are now scattered in the bigger towns and cities trying to survive with limited financial resources. I fear that an entire generation is being thrown into turmoil and there is little doubt that there will be many angry, confused, and even vengeful men emerging from them. Violence is therefore almost inevitable.
We must do everything possible to check present and possible future violence. Drones, however, have proved to be ineffective in doing so, as I have explained in The Thistle and the Drone. The study relied on 40 case studies of societies beset with violence as a result of the breakdown of relations between the periphery and the central government. Granted, the crisis in these societies already existed before 9/11 and is not a consequence of drones—drones are just one highly symbolic and emotionally charged aspect of the violence in these societies.
WA: What are other options? Drones kill fewer civilians and soldiers than conventional warfare, and Pakistan hasn't been the most helpful ally. Also, isn’t it naïve to suggest ending drone policy will remove anti-American extremism or terrorism?
AA: I agree that drones kill far fewer than conventional forms of warfare. I also agree that Pakistan has failed miserably to control the violence and ensure stability in its own jurisdiction, especially in the Tribal Areas. But I do not believe I am naïve in pointing out that drones act as a hated symbol of America and its war on terror. That is the reality. Political leaders such as Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and Imran Khan, the former cricket star turned leading politician, have made the cessation of drone strikes a matter of priority. Khan promised that the first order he would give as prime minister would be for the Pakistan Air Force to shoot down the drones. These developments suggest that there is great controversy to end the program and, as someone committed to better relations between the United States and Pakistan, I would like to see the allies work out an effective way of combating terrorism and maintain cordial relations.
However, it is important to point out that if the drones stopped today the problems of the Tribal Areas in Pakistan would not go away. What is needed to check the violence is to re-establish the traditional structures of tribal society, the three pillars of authority—the tribal elders, the religious leaders, and the political administration—which have been destroyed in the past few decades allowing the local Taliban to emerge. But that is the responsibility of Pakistan, not the United States.
The gravity of the situation in Pakistan needs to be communicated to the highest levels of the Obama administration.
WA: Imran Khan mobilized popular support among youth but the population decided to vote for Nawaz Sharif for the third time. Why did they reject Khan’s platform and support Sharif, despite his dismal record?
AA: Imran will always remain a popular sports icon in Pakistan and people were genuinely enthusiastic about his political campaigns. In the end, however, they voted for Nawaz Sharif who has a track record, however mixed. In short, when given a choice between a charismatic and fiery leader versus a tried and tested one, the electorate, especially in the Punjab, opted for a safe pair of hands. Besides, Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shabbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab, have worked hard to make that province a model province of Pakistan. Its roads, industries, and educational institutions already ahead of the rest of the country are now acknowledged by the people of the province as having reached impressive levels. The challenge for Imran Khan now is to make something of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, which he won. It will not be easy and if he fails, it will affect his standing in the next elections.
WA: The Taliban have initiated peace talks with the United States but are still dedicated to violence against Pakistani civilians, women, religious minorities, and American soldiers. Can political engagement and validation curtail their extreme views and terrorist acts, or will this just serve to solidify their legitimacy and power?
AA: First of all we must distinguish the activities of the Taliban in Afghanistan against U.S. and NATO troops from the attacks of its affiliate, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Pakistan. While the former focuses on its campaign against foreign troops, the latter launches assaults on Pakistan, its symbols, and its citizens. For the Taliban in Afghanistan, considering their history, track record, and leadership, I do not see them abandoning their campaign to exclude women from education and to keep minorities like the Shia outside the boundaries of Islam, or their commitment to violence. These elements have taken root and unless the traditional structures of society are strong enough to resist them, talks with the Americans will barely make a dent on how they view the world. In fact, the talks with the Americans will be widely seen in that part of the world as a victory for the Taliban, since the United States had declared again and again that it would never talk to them. Coming from that position, they are hardly going to be in any repentant or reforming mood. When the government of Pakistan handed over the Swat Region to the TTP, it launched a campaign of terror, discouraging girls from going to school, punishing men without beards, and generally throwing their weight about with impunity. The situation is grave and must be assessed realistically with a strategy calculated to move Afghanistan and Pakistan into functioning modern states.
WA: Feudalism and land owning elites dominate the political and economic landscape of Pakistan. How can democracy and economic opportunities favoring the middle class flourish?
AA: Pakistanis looking at India often give the credit for its remarkable economic and political vitality to its rapidly expanding middle class. Pakistan too has a middle class but it is tiny in proportion. The result is a thin layer of a very rich elite and the vast majority of Pakistanis struggling to have two meals a day. Yet this is the very land that at one stage formed the “bread basket” of the British Empire. The people are hard working and the land has potential. Given a period of stability, there is every prospect of Pakistan emerging as a stable and economically sound nation.
WA: In hindsight, would Pakistan have been better off remaining a part of India. Was partition a mistake?
AA: I have heard this question raised many times recently. With the endemic violence and economic crisis in Pakistan, it needs to be answered. I have discussed this with many Pakistanis. The fact of the matter is that no people, however miserable at home, would willingly give up their independence to be under another entity that would treat them as second-class citizens. Unfortunately Pakistanis also see and hear of the communal riots in India against Muslims and the prejudice against them. This dispels any regret for having left India. A more realistic approach should be to encourage visits, exchanges, and friendships across the borders. There is so much that is shared and in common between these two countries to build upon. The 21st century must see South Asia discover its inherent unity and its potential on the world stage. It cannot do so if it continues to be locked in medieval notions of religious confrontation and chauvinism.
WA: Afghanistan is used by both India and Pakistan for strategic depth. There’s resentment by Afghans that Pakistan has both abandoned them and uses them for their proxy wars, thereby further destabilizing the country and aiding extremism. What can both countries do to normalize relations while ensuring their respective national security?
AA: Afghanistan and Pakistan have a strange love/hate relationship. They not only share an international border but many ethnic nations whose kin live on the other side of the border. They also have a shared history when the two regions were under one rule. Yet, tragically, the recent history of relations has been bitter and sour. The Afghans blame Pakistan for much of their ills, especially their intelligence agencies. They would even blame the same agencies for being instrumental in fostering the Taliban from the 1990s onwards. Pakistanis are equally bitter about Afghans; they will complain that when the Soviets invaded that country in the 1980s approximately 5 million Afghans took shelter in Pakistan but brought Kalashnikovs and drugs with them into Pakistan society. With India’s involvement in Afghanistan, matters get more complicated. Pakistan’s nightmare is to be encircled by India on its eastern and western borders. Better relations between India and Pakistan will immediately ease pressures on Afghanistan.
WA: Most Pakistanis lack electricity 12–18 hours a day due to rolling blackouts (load shedding). This has disrupted daily life, caused numerous protests and hurt Pakistan’s national economy. An energy deal with Iran would directly help the situation but upset U.S. foreign policy objectives. How should Pakistan proceed?
AA: Pakistani citizens have to put up with a great deal of hardships and lack of consistent electricity is high on the list of priorities. That is why Nawaz Sharif promised to tackle it as soon as he was in office. But the efforts to resolve the issue risk a confrontation with the United States. In any situation involving matters of national interest, a state seeks to promote its own objectives. While America’s is to contain Iran, Pakistan’s is to obtain electricity. The gravity of the situation in Pakistan needs to be communicated to the highest levels of the Obama administration by Pakistani leaders so that they can relieve the pressures on the population. To further ignore the demands of Pakistanis for electricity risks pushing an already volatile population into the arms of the men of violence and create turmoil in an already troubled nation.