The least bad option for targeting jehadis in Pakistan
Drone strikes by the US inside Pakistani territory are controversial, to say the least. The opinions on these strikes are heavily polarised. Those opposing drone strikes make the following arguments. One, these drone strikes kill innocents. Two, these strikes violate the sovereignty of Pakistan. Three, they send a wrong message to Pakistanis and create more terrorists. All these arguments have merits till we examine them closely.
Pakistani society is at such a state that nothing that the US does or doesn’t do seems to send the right message to Pakistanis. Pakistani media (rated 151 out of 175 in world free press index) can be trusted to twist any story to direct the public anger towards the US. That these drone strikes create more terrorists is an attractive idea but remains unproven by any factual research or ground reportage. Even if there were no drone strikes, there are enough grudges against the US — from Iraq or Afghanistan — that can be exploited by the jehadis to lure more young men into jehad.
The sovereignty question is again a very attractive proposition in theory. But not in practice, if you look a little closer. Pakistan’s sovereignty was not violated by the US Navy Seals team at Abbottabad but by Osama bin Laden who stayed in that city for a decade. Similarly, US would not need to fire missiles from its drones if Pakistan had the will, willingness or the capacity to act against al Qaeda and other jehadis who have formed a base in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Till 2007, al Qaeda had actually grown stronger by basing itself in these areas before US drones started disrupting its leadership. If Pakistan would have been able to uphold the sovereignty of its land against al Qaeda and other terror groups, the question of US violating Pakistan’s sovereignty would never arise.
A major source of angst and anger is over the death of innocent civilians. Some innocents are surely dying in the missiles fired by these drones. But no one has made a cogent case so far that the US is deliberately targeting innocent civilians in tribal areas. They are, to use the unfortunate military term, “collateral damage”.
But all of this still misses the fundamental point of this debate. What is the alternative to these drone strikes? Bombing raids by fighter aircraft, strafing by helicopter gunships, use of missiles or pounding by artillery fire. These are the methods used by Pakistan in Balochistan and in tribal areas against the ‘bad’ jehadis. They have all the disadvantages of drone strikes, and worse. They are far more inaccurate, more visible and would be more violative of Pakistan’s sovereignty than any pilotless aircraft.
Of course, there is another option. To leave the tribal areas of Pakistan completely untouched so that al Qaeda and its affiliates can base themselves there and spread terror across the globe. While Pakistan may be comfortable with that, the rest of the world doesn’t share that view. Countries like India, who have particularly borne the brunt of terror over the years, may not be publicly welcoming the use of US drones but would be glad that the jehadis in Pakistan’s tribal areas are unsettled due to the fear of missiles raining from the sky.