Drone Attacks on Pakistan and Blowback from Obama’s War

“Sometimes Polices Have Costs and Benefits”

As of January 17, there had been 10 drone attacks on Pakistan so far this year. There were 44 in all of 2009. One of those in August killed Baitullah Mehsud, 35 year old leader of Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a local group inspired by the Taliban of Afghanistan and conjured into being by U.S. bombing of both countries.

Now the main target is Mehsud’s successor, 30ish Hakimullah Mehsud. If and when he is killed (along with some civilians, if precedent is followed), there will be another TTP leader, another main target for the drone strikes. And when he’s killed, another. Although the Afghan Taliban has officially distanced itself from al-Qaeda, offering last month to provide a “legal guarantee” that it would not intervene in foreign countries after resuming power, this is precisely the cycle of violence al-Qaeda wishes to encourage throughout the Muslim world.

It is doing so successfully from the Swat Valley to southern Yemen and has infinite potential to spread the jihad elsewhere if the U.S. continues to swallow the bait.

Every expert on Pakistan notes that the drone strikes on the country have outraged public opinion and damaged the president, Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari, responding to mass demonstrations, and protests by the legislature and newspaper editors, has repeatedly stated that “the U.S. actions should remain on the Afghan side of the border” (that is to say, the U.S. should respect Pakistani sovereignty and international law).

He recently told a delegation of U.S. legislators including Sen. John McCain that “drone attacks on Pakistani territory undermined the national consensus” against Islamist militants. McCain responded, “The drone strikes are part of an overall set of tactics which make up the strategy for victory and they have been very effective.” (That is to say: Our strategy for victory trumps your petty claim to national independence.)

Last week Zardari told U.S. special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke that the drone strikes were “a cause of great concern” and urged a policy review by the Obama administration. Asked by the press how the strikes were affecting relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, Holbrooke was both coy and condescending. “I am limited in what I can talk about on this subject, but sometimes policies … have costs and benefits,” he said. In other words: Yes, our violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty is infuriating its people, a potential downside, but on the bright side, that violation has resulted in some militants’ deaths. The same logic as McCain’s.

Pakistani officials have been protesting the attacks for a long time. Speaking in parliament in November 2008, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani denounced the most recent attack, which had occurred at Bannu district in the northwest. This was the first such attack outside the border tribal areas. “These attacks are adding to our problems,” he declared. “They are intolerable and we do not support them.” At that time Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi summoned the U.S. ambassador to once again protest U.S. violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty, and to declare that such attacks were not helping counter-terrorism efforts. During the same month the Pakistani Army held a training exercise in using surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns to shoot down drones. This was widely interpreted as a move to pressure the government to stand up to the U.S.

All this took place during November 2008, the month of Obama’s election, during a year when the Bush administration executed 17 drone attacks on Pakistan reportedly killing 165 people. (There’d been seven between 2004 and 2007.) Perhaps Pakistanis hoped that there’d be a change under Obama.

Early on in his administration, we came to associate global cowboy bullying with George W. Bush. Widely perceived as simplistic in his thinking, he divided the complex world into two, announcing after 9-11 “You’re either for us or against us,” and demanding fealty as security against attack. Pakistan’s leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf, an ally of the Taliban for his own geostrategic reasons, was ordered to sever ties with the organization and cooperate with the U.S. “War on Terror” or “get bombed back to the Stone Age.” The general obeyed, was paid well for his efforts, but also paid a political price. A poll taken in September 2007 showed him trailing Osama bin Laden in approval ratings in Pakistan, 46 to 38%.

Zardari, president since September 2008, represents a return to civilian rule and has a broader political base than Musharraf, who had seized power in a military coup in 1999. He’s the husband of former president Benazir Bhutto, assassinated by terrorists during her presidential campaign in December 2007, and can count on the support of the Pakistan Peoples Party, the largest party in the country. But he too must comply with Washington’s wishes, and Washington has not become less demanding or more respectful with the advent of Barack Hussein Obama.

Obama is in some ways (style, certainly) the antithesis of Bush. His smooth Cairo speech to the Muslim world in June 2009 was designed to counter the cowboy-outlaw image and portray the U.S. as a respectful partner of Muslim nations, capable of self-reflection and self-criticism. He pointedly noted that the invasion of Iraq had been “a war of choice” (without however drawing the obvious conclusion that it was a war in violation of international law whose architects should be prosecuted). But the key passage in the dignified address was this one, which could have been penned by a Bush speechwriter:

Over seven years ago, the United States pursued al Qaeda and the Taliban with broad international support. We did not go by choice, we went because of necessity. I am aware that some question or justify the events of 9/11. But let us be clear: al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody. And yet Al Qaeda chose to ruthlessly murder these people…These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.

Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan… We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.

Here the candidate of Change (champion of a system that does not change) trotted out the same old tired myth that launched a thousand others in the period since: the notion that al-Qaeda = the Taliban. That is surely an “opinion to be debated,” and if debated those conflating the two will be easily exposed as manipulative, fear-mongering deceivers. The U.S. and its allies are not fighting in Afghanistan those who killed 3000 on 9-11 but Pashtun nationalists indignant that their country’s been invaded and occupied. U.S. intelligence quietly confirms that al-Qaeda has been driven from Afghanistan and any presence now is “minor.” What the U.S. faces now are new enemies that it multiplies each day through its behavior.

This is true in Pakistan too. Indeed, the U.S. by its bombing of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border (the “Durand Line” legacy of British colonialism ignored by the Pashtuns who straddle it) midwifed the birth of the Pakistani Taliban movement. That has produced huge problems for the Pakistani state and its military for which U.S. officials show little understanding or empathy.

From the point of view of the former, India occupying over half of Muslim Kashmir rather than their former Talib allies constitutes the primary threat to Pakistan’s national security. But the real issue is not the legitimacy of Pakistan’s claim to all of Kashmir or Indian counter-claims but the arrogance of a foreign power preaching to the Pakistanis where the real threats to themselves reside and demanding cooperation in confronting those threats. The Bush and Obama administrations have paid lip-service to the idea that “the Kashmir problem must be resolved,” much as Obama has insisted, in words, that Israeli settlers must be withdrawn from the occupied West Bank where they remain comfortably.

But then officials blithely suggest that giant India, with which the U.S. has signed an agreement to sell nuclear reactors and equipment and is developing a military alliance (indeed urging it to become a “superpower” to challenge China and dominate the Indian Ocean), is no problem. Pakistan, they insist, ought to redeploy tens of thousands of troops from Kashmir to the Afghan border. The message remains the same as it was during the Bush administration: You’re either for us or against us. Jump aboard our project; make our war your war and leave your other petty regional concerns (so difficult for Americans to understand) aside. And if with each missile we lob onto your sovereign territory without your permission and against your people’s will we exacerbate the problem we’ve created, join with us in suffering the consequences.

Or rather, bear the great bulk of those consequences yourselves! Over 7000 civilians dead (according to one report, 90% of the 700 killed by drone strikes in 2009 were civilians). 3000 soldiers and police killed, over 13000 militants (reportedly) killed, three and a half million people displaced, puritanical Islamism on the rise throughout the country. Even if the U.S. absorbed the entire $35 billion price tag for the war, the socio-economic results have been disastrous. Hence as Zardari rather timidly understates it: “a cause of great concern.” U.S. attacks have indeed undermined any “national consensus” and instead produced deep fissures in Pakistani society (rather likes the increasingly frequent drone attacks are doing in Yemen).

And the Obama administration, as Holbrooke’s dismissive remarks make clear, just doesn’t care. A very conventional president of an imperialist country with a savage history of wars against “communism” (i.e., to defend and expand capitalism), wars to expand empire, wars for control of resources and markets (which he defended in his Nobel Peace Prize speech as wars that “helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms”) Obama weighs “costs and benefits” and calculates that the suffering of the Pakistani people and the stresses imposed on the Islamabad government are worth the occasional announcement that we slew one militant per 10 or so “collateral” civilians. (Perhaps 100 civilians per Baitullah Mehsud-quality hit.)

Obama’s much keener to fight the war in what his advisors call “Af-Pak” than was his bellicose predecessor. (Again: just 24 drone attacks on Pakistan during the entire Bush administration, at least 54 so far since Obama took office.) It’s his war now, as key to his legacy as the health care reform bill. Reliant upon unmanned aerial vehicles and remote sensing to fire missiles at ground targets, it’s a war without U.S. casualties and thus no apparent immediate risk. But rest assured, the repeated, naked, callous violation of a proud, populous, nuclear-armed Muslim nation’s sovereignty will produce some blowback over time.

You cannot deliberately cultivate hatred through your actions and expect it to just dry up and blow away. Human beings don’t operate that way. They react. Until there’s real change (not in the face on the system, but of the system itself) the cycle will continue.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.