Let us be clear: there can be no justifiable condemnation of a strike that takes out a terrorist who does not appear to be very flexible in his demands and is responsible for inflicting violence, death and chaos upon a group of people who stand against his cause, at least not on moral or humanitarian grounds. He may have been the product of betrayal and abandonment by the hands that fed, educated and trained him, but a vengeance directed at innocent bystanders with little to no understanding of history or international politics, is not just vengeance. It is cold-blooded, premeditated murder. Multiple and countless murders rather.
It is a tough sell – the condemnation – no matter how hard Imran Khan et al dispute the matter. However, being afraid or weary of the repercussions following such a strike is not unusual; there are natural strategic apprehensions that follow every time a drone leaves its unmanned vehicle. For some reason, these considerations implicate critical thinkers as being TTP apologists, sympathisers or promoters. The debate is not that clear cut.
There are primarily two leading schools of thought bumping heads and striking wings over the subject of drones since before the attack on Tehreek-e-Taliban’s Hakimullah Mehsud. The first school rejects their use altogether due to the civilian casualties that have resulted since the strikes began in 2004. Repulsed by collateral damage, it supports itself on the premises of international law, state sovereignty and human rights.
Gradually enflaming this school of thought is the argument that drones, targeting senior militants, are derailing talks and sabotaging negotiations. On what grounds, where, how and with whom these negotiations are to take place remains a source of much contention and confusion.
The second school of thought advocates for drones that are scrapping out the crème de la crème of the militancy monster we created, along with our former imperial bosses, which have claimed over 40,000 innocent lives. Various conflicting reports on the statistics centring on drone strikes objectify this school of thought. After putting the civilian toll at 300 in May this year, the Sharif government recently disclosed that just 67 civilians have been killed since 2008.
This is a starkly questionable figure and contrasts drastically from the numbers calculated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Amnesty International that estimate between 400 to over 900 civilians have been killed since drone strikes began (300 since 2008 according to TBIJ). Let us assume that 3500 people have been killed by drones, out of which 400 were non-combatants. That is still under 9% civilian casualties in the 378 strikes overall.
Increasingly, however, there is a third school of thought emerging and troubling our conscience, what I refer to as the ‘Inbetweeners’ school, one that is constantly attacked from extremes ends of the spectrum for not choosing sides. On the one hand, its proponents argue against the use of poorly monitored, indiscriminately selected, personality and signature strikes directing this predator and resulting in bug splat across Pakistan’s frontier landscape. On the other, it temporarily succumbs to resignation and hesitant acceptance when the likes of Nek Mohammad, Wali-ur Rehman, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud are taken out.
The Inbetweeners are increasingly becoming conflicted between the realities that drones are not aimed at punishing civilians but rather members of al Qaeda and the TTP, and the unpleasant pragmatism that many of these militants live amongst civilians in the frontier and in the process of taking out militants, they too will become targets. Certainly not helping their cause is the bitter truth that Pakistan has given tacit approval to the use of drone strikes in Pakistan, further confusing advocates and students of international law.
Regardless of the debate that is turning more and more sensitive by the day, all three schools of thought are generally hoping for a day when this menace stops buzzing around Pakistan’s airspace. But there is a lack of unified thought on how we should be even more critical of the loss of civilian lives at the hands of the militants that drones strive to take out.
The reality is that drones operate with Pakistan’s support; they will create civilian casualties whether we like it or not; TTP will throw fits after every strike and storm out of talks as is precedence; TTP will also replace one Mehsud commander with another, in this case, possibly Khan Sayed alias Khalid (‘Sajna’), who is recognised for his guerrilla tactics. TTP may also retaliate with suicide terrorism and tactical warfare in full force, displaying their unbreakable armour and will. It will continue taking the lives of innocents – far more than those claimed by drones – because they are, in their views, under the authority of Pakistan – the very state assisting the non-believing government of President Obama. Moreover, it is extremely likely that their senseless murders will continue should drones stop flying.
Welcome to the new era of post-colonialism, our very own Hunger Games. Here, we make war and call it peace.