Pakistan, drones and politics

American drones are shattering Pakistani lives. But behind moral obscenity is political reality, says Maruf Khwaja.

Maruf Khwaja
30 October 2013

There are many foreign words for which there are no equivalents in Urdu, Pakistan’s lingua franca. The English word "drone" is one - and the same is true for any other language spoken in that drone-ravaged country. But Pakistanis are not much bothered if they cannot find or even invent an equivalent; they merely spell and pronounce it according to the script or sound of their own language. The letters "d-r-o-n-e" then come out as "d-u-r-r-o-n-e", the emphasis being on the first syllable "d-u-r-r" - which translates into Urdu  as fear, dread, horror. The mispronunciation thus adds a layer of unintended but true meaning to the word.

What follows the vaporising, explosive impact of the flying-bomb released by the drone is a religious ritual that becomes an obligation, requiring those in the neighbourhood to mount a rescue of whatever can be rescued: by digging up the rubble,picking up the  dead, and assembling the mourners. No Muslim - especially a tribal Pashtun - can leave a dead body unburied or a wounded one unattended. Drone operators have cottoned onto that. So as  the rescuers gather around the target, a second drone-strikes. And the casualties mount.  It isn’t accidental and it is not  just the drone operators who are being diabolical. The Taliban - quick learners of American techniques - do likewise with their suicide- or car-bombs. Rescue operations, funeral processions, even macabre sightseeing in the wake of a Taliban attack - all can attract second or even third strikes, multiplying casualties.   

The cumulative effect of such shattering experiences means that durrone has entered the Urdu lexicon alongside older scare words: deo, jinn, dayne or churayal used to. These  favourites of fairytale writers would drive the fear of the devil himself into our childish hearts. Now, the image of the drone - that modern monster of American (but increasingly, everyone else's) technology - is taking their place. It delivers death and destruction, as swift as it is sudden, on recipients unknowing until the terrible moment of impact.

Condemn and collude

The denunuciations have been appropriate and clear - from the Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif, whose well rehearsed appeals to Barack Obama on his visit to Washington were backed by most if not all Pakistanis, to public opinion around the world. The consensus is that drones are wicked and immoral, and their use illegal. The United States was unmoved, however. Obama had heard it all before - and so too had the media in Pakistan. For once, in the wake of Sharif's visit, some newspapers spoke the larger truth. Editorials warned that if Pakistan wanted to end the drone campaign it needed to take steps of its own to root out militancy in the seven semi-autonomous tribal areas along the Afghan border. “It is because of the state’s lack of control of an area teeming with militants that the Americans have unleashed the drones,” said Dawn, the country’s oldest English-language newspaper.

After all, there is another side to Pakistan's repeated condemnation of the US drone campaign. CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos obtained by the Washington Post reveal that top Pakistani officials have for years secretly endorsed the campaign and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts.

Markings on the documents - which cover a four-year stretch from late 2007 to late 2011, during which the drone campaign intensified dramatically - show that many of them were prepared by the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre specifically to be shared with Pakistan’s government (dominated, in the early part of the period, by the country's military ruler Pervez Musharraf). They contain details of dozens of attacks in Pakistan’s tribal region, replete with maps and before-and-after aerial photos of targeted compounds. The files trumpet the success of strikes that killed dozens of alleged al-Qaida operatives, while asserting repeatedly that no civilians were harmed.

In both Washington and Islamabad, Pakistan’s tacit approval of the drone programme has long been an open (or poorly kept) national-security secret. The CIA even used Pakistani airstrips for its Predator fleet in the early stages of the campaign. But the Washington Post files - designated as “top ­secret” but cleared for release to Pakistan - expose the explicit nature of a secret arrangement between the two countries at a time when neither was willing publicly to acknowledge even the existence of the drone operations. The documents detail at least sixty-five strikes in Pakistan described as “talking points” for CIA briefings, which occurred with such regularity that they became a matter of diplomatic routine.

Pakistani officialdom's collusion in the Americans' use of drones thus gives its strident demands for an end to the campaign a large element of hypocrisy. But Nawaz Sharif is obliged to protest, not least as it was his nemesis Pervez Musharraf who was responsible for forging collaboration with Washington. Why should Sharif himself now bear the burden, the implicit guilt? There is an unwritten convention that no government can be obliged to honour the obligations of its predecessor, especially one as illegitimate as Musharraf’s.

The Taliban plan

But what can a pauper regime do? Here, Pakistan is in a bind. All the options - hit the Americans with a bigger begging-bowl, foment a rebellion in Kabul - face the incontestable reality of  a seemingly unstoppable Taliban rebellion, of Baluchistan out of control, of large areas becoming ungovernable. The Taliban don’t want Pakistan, nor to secede from it: they want to destroy it, and establish their own little caliphate with Mullah Omar (or somebody like Sufi Mohammed) as caliph. In this vision, Punjab can go to hell, as can Sindh and Baluchistan. The Pashtuns can strike out on their own, as many always wanted (as in the idea of "Pakthtunistan", a homeland for all Pashtuns irrespective of modern state borders).

The Taliban are preparing for their caliphate - a true caliphate without such nonsense as vaccination, family planning, or women’s education (which gives them silly ideas, like this Malala girl, who'll get what is coming to her one day). Nawaz Sharif too is no problem, for he won’t last very long anyway. Just stop the drones. For now.

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