In a recent articulate and feisty talk at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, Professor Ayesha Jalal of Tufts University discussed notions of sovereignty and how they are applied in narratives of contemporary Pakistan. Sovereignty is conventionally understood as indivisible and non-negotiable, as in British colonial discourse and now in its reappropriation by the Pakistani state. But these absolute notions of sovereignty in theory fail to correspond to practice. Just as British sovereignty was exercised through autonomous, personalised rule during colonialism, Pakistan’s real sovereignty is beyond the government’s control and now concentrated in the hands of other political actors where the scope of the law ends and politics begins.
Sovereignty also involves the ability of the state to maintain security and retain a monopoly on violence, an initiative the Pakistani state has lost to non-state actors such as the Taliban. The Taliban and its Pakistani version, Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), have also made significant inroads in co-opting the sovereignty of the state in the ideological arena, by manipulating Islam to serve their political ends, and continue to make progress in damaging Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty. The Pakistan government has lost effective control of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtoon (KPK) and struggles to retain any semblance of power over places such as the volatile province of Balochistan and civil-war-plagued Karachi.
The aggressive US campaign to target Islamic militants in Pakistani cities and along the Afghan border has provided an opportunity for Pakistan to pursue a duplicitous policy. While the government has consistently and publicly condemned US drone warfare as a violation of sovereignty, some of the country’s own agencies are culpable in approving those strikes. In a recently released United Nations report, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, confirmed evidence of consent by military and intelligence officials to US action in FATA from 2004 to 2008. A report by the Washington Post detailed, in Central Intelligence Agency briefs and shared secret-operation memos, the Pakistan government’s explicit knowledge and endorsement of the drone programme from 2007 to 2011.
US drone strikes enrage most people in Pakistan—not to mention many Pakistanis in the west—as external violations of sovereignty. In a hypocritical attempt to pander to citizens’ sentiments and win popular legitimacy, heads of government from Pervez Musharraf to Asif Ali Zardari to Nawaz Sharif, have openly criticised the US and urged an end to the strikes, only to be privately complicit in their execution.
Of course, the Taliban’s paramilitary networks and resulting destabilisation violate Pakistan’s sovereignty to a greater and more damaging extent; civilian deaths from fundamentalist attacks significantly outnumber those from drone strikes. South Asian Terrorism Portal puts total civilian casualties from ‘terrorist’ violence at almost 18,000 since 2003, with an additional 5,000 soldiers killed in fighting with Pakistani militants, whereas the number of civilian deaths from drones has been independently estimated as between 400 and 900 since the first strike in 2004. In an unexpected turn, figures released by Pakistan’s military now claim that only 67 civilians have been victims of drone attacks since 2008—numbers which are questionable and contradict the Pakistan government’s earlier assertions.
The government has been largely inactive in combating the threatening and pervasive presence of militants in the country—as demonstrated by the Abbottabad compound that harboured Osama bin Laden near a Pakistani military base, and the many alleged cells based in such regions as north Waziristan and southern Punjab. If that were not damning enough, the Washington Post report, citing information in classified cables and from meetings, indicated that Pakistani intelligence officials had in certain cases supported militants and countered US efforts to target them. The state’s constant display of erratic behaviour is indicative of serious internal ideological conflict or of incoherent governance.
The Pakistan government is however not being held accountable for its policies or inaction—and its inconsistent definitions of sovereignty are not coming under close scrutiny. Yet given the combination of tacit state approval of US drone strikes, badly kept secrets of the Inter Services Intelligence’s (ISI) involvement in militant activity, and the Taliban’s inescapable and damaging effects on Pakistani society, why isn’t the public outraged?