The political correctness of drone activism

Soft, anti-war interventions can end up endorsing conservative politics, if they are not strategically astute, says Afiya Shehrbano Zia

Afiya Shehrbano Zia
5 November 2012

Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, in her recent comments on drone attacks as a counter-insurgency measure in the tribal areas of Pakistan, said that her government did not disagree with the purpose behind drone warfare (killing terrorists). However, she qualified this support by saying that the means of such methods in Pakistan were illegal and counter-productive. This self-indicting admission would be admirable if it wasn’t for the almost universal consensus amongst Pakistani commentators that, the government and Pakistan’s military chief are and always have been, in consonance with the US on drone use. The role of helpless acquiescence on the part of Khar is considered to be a deliberate act of “good-cop-bad-cop”, as played by the government and Pakistan army as ally to the US in the 'war on terror'. This is particularly so on the issue of drones. While making the right political noises about drones, Khar also made the completely dishonest remark that the number one reason for anti-American sentiment was drone warfare.

Khar took this position during her visit to Washington DC in August 2012 to patch up a series of fallings-out and growing mistrust between both countries, post-Bin-Laden. Pakistani commentators meanwhile, exposed the process of parallel and back-door negotiations under the cover of Khar’s political correctness for domestic consumption. On the recently released coalition support fund, which transits through Pakistan, journalist Mehreen Zahra- Malik makes a damning point:

        “If at least four different power centres were pulling the strings of Pak-US ties – the General Head Quarters [Army], the Presidency, the foreign ministry and the Pakistan embassy in DC – it looks like GHQ prevailed. We already know that the meeting at Khar’s residence on the night of July 2-3 when the deal was sealed was presided over by General Kayani himself.”

The political correctness of condemning drone warfare serves not only a useful ideological purpose – it also disguises a directly proportionate material benefit.

On the point of anti-US sentiment, despite her youth, Khar would be aware that anti-US postures have been a long-standing and historical pivot for Islamists in Pakistan – sometimes even as they sided with military dictators who were in cahoots with the US. Islamists and conservatives in Pakistan have mastered the art of posing as America-haters and politicking on this base, all the while amenable to deals and benefits that can accrue out of relations with the US administration.

Even the zealous judicial activism of the Supreme Court, under the stewardship of a restored and populist Chief Justice who has been involved in micro judgments calling on the government to regulate the price of sugar and gas in the country, and has often released terrorist suspects for lack of evidence, has chosen to look the other way on drones.

From a tsunami to a trickle

It was not surprising then, that it was the cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, who leads an electorally marginalized party, the Pakistan Tehreeq e Insaaf (PTI) and who is a vocal critic of the current government, the opposition, the US, 'war on terror' and drones, decided to lead a protest march to Waziristan in sympathy for drone-affected zones. He had nothing to lose.

The response to his call was predictably luke-warm with perhaps more support through social media rather than physical presence . This is particularly stark when we consider that earlier this year he garnered major crowds (‘Tsunamis’, as he likes to call them) of supporters at his political rallies. The spectacle convinced Codepink of Khan’s mass following although this was not necessarily on his stand on militancy. The fillip in his marginality came largely because the former foreign minister of the ruling party and a lead member of the opposition chose to jump ship and join his party.

In any case, the comparative weak response to his protest march against drones was more glaring when compared to the nation-wide Lawyers’ Movement (2007-2009) that paralyzed the country for nearly two years. It was the charismatic leadership of prominent lawyer and astute politician, Aitzaz Ahsan, which sustained a nation-wide street activism that managed to restore the deposed Chief Justice of Pakistan. Prior to the Lawyers’ Movement, most people did not know much about the judiciary except that it was a slow-moving, corrupt institution. However, Ahsan’s leadership convinced the people that the deposition of the CJ was a symbol of gross constitutional injustice. The result was that rural women, trade unionists, feminist groups, journalists and activists went to jail and camped in the wild to be part of this campaign to restore the constitutional sovereignty of the country as represented by the Chief Justice.

A few members of Codepink came to be part of that protest. They were lost in the sea of mass protest and made no significant contribution to a very local and broad based politics. Therefore, this year when they came to lend support to Khan’s fledgling protest march, clearly they did not take into account that while the politics of alliance does not have to be populist, it should at least be representative and its leadership must carry credibility.  On these counts, Codepink was wildly misguided and is now back-peddling to very valid criticism of its political choices.

Meredith Tax in her article on openDemocracy pointed out some of the troubling aspects of ‘soft’ interventions on the part of Western activists and the graver concern of allying with conservative forces as represented through Khan’s politics.

The questions Codepink ignored

Given the compelling role of the Pakistan army as the front-line ally in the 'war on terror', the question that Codepink should have asked themselves and Khan, before throwing their support behind him is, ‘Why aren’t we marching in protest to the Army headquarters— in accessible Rawalpindi– instead of marching in vague solidarity into what is literally called Ilaaqa Ghair (the strange land/refuting ownership – a colloquial reference to the tribal belt in north Pakistan)?’

One suggestion of appeasement has been that, instead of the US operating the drones, the technology should be transferred to the Pakistan army to make them more ‘legitimate’. This possibility has been rejected by experts, but the question remains, will Codepink (and Khan) still protest the use of drones if the Pakistan army was to directly operate such attacks or, would this successfully circumvent the legitimacy issue?

Codepink should also have been alerted to the shallowness of a campaign where they were practically the only women in Imran Khan’s march.  Not only was there no visible participation from feminist or human rights organizations, even the women of Khan’s own party, the PTI, were missing.  The night before the march there was a news item on the fact that women supporters of PTI would not be allowed to travel to the tribal areas for traditional and security reasons. This infantilization of women is new, because historically, Pakistani women have been at the forefront of anti-dictatorship, pro-democracy movements and have led nation-wide movements for their rights.  Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, would travel to inspect troops and visit intractable parts of the country. Pukhtoon women in the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province (neighbouring the tribal belt) have resisted and paid a high price for the years of backlash of militancy since the 1980s.

One of my colleagues on the day of the Waziristan march inquired if any women had in fact participated in Khan’s march and got a reply from a PTI senior vice president, saying 'We have included those who wished to participate'. This is the same response Islamists and secular male politicians make when asked if women in their party inherit equal amounts of property as men. The common response is, 'They have the right to their (lesser) share if they wish to demand it.'  But while Pakistani women's participation was up for debate, the Western women of Codepink had the freedom, free will and guaranteed security to march with the PTI men. They lent a kind of reverse exotica to the spectacle.

Local is not always global

Pakistani feminists and human rights activists have been campaigning for decades for improvements in the tribal areas, especially on the need to restructure colonial political and legal arrangements. The historical neglect of these areas has led to several layers of legal and social systems, such that people are sandwiched between a colonial system of governance that was never dismantled and local community-based tribunal justice systems involving honour codes. All this has been romanticized by Imran Khan who valorizes the stereotypical Pathan Warrior while dismissing the immobility of women, inter-tribal violence and a complete lack of social development, especially in terms of education and for women.

For Khan to suggest that ending the alliance with the Americans and refuting the ‘War on Terror’ will 'normalise' matters is ridiculous.  At some point in the future, the region may return to a pre-conflict state of tribal administration, but that is neither a definition of peace nor of progress. Long before the ‘war on terror’, in 1994, the Tehreeq e Nifaaz e Shariah Mohammad was already rearing its challenge to the state, which culminated in a ‘swift justice system’ negotiated with the current government under the Nizam e Adl in 2008. To suggest that the drone attacks have accelerated militancy in some vacuum or purely due to the ‘war on terror’ is a dishonest proposal. Secondly, the romanticisation and idolisation of the male tribesman as the ultimate Islamist warrior armed with his unending stock of arms and honour against US imperialism, is enormously troubling to Pakistani feminists.  Most feminists in Pakistan object to US involvement and intervention in the region but simultaneously, oppose the masculinist misogyny and non-democratic rule and violence employed by local authoritarian forces including the army, tribal rulers, landed political rulers, and the ulama/clergy.

Agendas independent of drones

The debate on drones is one that troubles Pakistanis – liberals and pacifists included.  But the militants have categorically helped to resolve the ambiguities in the Malala Yousufzai case .While all the apologists for the Taliban, including Khan, were making lofty declarations implying that the reason Malala was attacked was because of drones and US imperialist designs, the Taliban themselves issued statement after statement saying, in effect: ‘Wake up, we attacked Malala for her repeated defiance against Taliban directives to shut down girls’ schools, and for her active designs to “secularise society” and for being commended by and communicating with Obama and western patrons.’ It’s not about the drones, they say, but the social chaos that follows liberal agendas when girls go out freely and resist the militants’ Islamic agendas.

Critics of Khan’s campaign argue that his agenda seeks to deflect attention from the issue of militancy.  They have argued that his anti-drone campaign is appeasing these militants rather than insisting that the Taliban adhere to the constitution of Pakistan and follow the rule of law. These critics also ask for a plan – which Taliban groups does he identify as amenable to peace talks and so on? The suggestion is that Khan has no plan to offer, just a lot of anti-US political performativity.

Pakistani feminists believe that it is dangerous to sponsor an either/ or position. Despite deep concerns about militancy, human rights groups have consistently advocated for caution regarding military action in any part of Pakistan. However, what they have not done is fragmented their demands or split them by putting the spotlight only on excessive army force in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Nor do they blindly follow a politician for whom a select part of an issue is flavor of the month. Khan has never raised the issue of the military’s jihadi incursions into other countries (Kashmir, Afghanistan) and he has never worked for the case of enforced disappearances of separatists in Baluchistan.  This is because they have nothing to do with the US. In contrast to his mealy-mouthed and delayed protest about Malala, the only woman victim he has taken a strong and sustained national position over is, suspected and indicted terrorist, Afia Siddiqi, and that’s only because she’s in a US jail.  His human rights agenda is determined by a belief in collective rights for Muslims but not autonomous individual rights.

Pakistan’s human rights organisations have been committed to exposing human rights violations or extra judicial killings in counter-insurgency programmes but on all sides of the conflict – those atrocities committed by militants and army/NATO forces, simultaneously and against all forms of conflict all over Pakistan. They do not posit one against the other but agonise over both and play the human rights card on principle and consistently, not randomly nor out of context and not at the behest of individual opportunism.

A lot of serious background work goes into building movements; it can’t be done by one-shot, feel-good peace marches. Codepink faltered on this one and should be open to reflection, as suggested by Meredith’s Tax piece.


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