Drone attacks no longer a matter of a 'nod and a wink'

The growing awareness within the US and its allies that drone attacks are claiming innocent lives will help Pakistan¿s cause. But the bigger question is: how long Pakistan will tolerate it?

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Speaking to journalists on February 5 at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Pakistan's Ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, gave the most unequivocal statement opposing the use of US drones that has been made during the tenure of the current Pakistan government.

She said drone strikes were "counterproductive"; that they "created more terrorists [and] extremists, and fanned anti-American feelings". The attacks violated Pakistan's sovereignty, were illegal, and there was no off-the-record "wink or nod" by the government to sanction them.

Previous statements had always left room for some doubt, but not this one. So, what prompted this? Let's take a look at the historical perspective.

The first thing we do know is that former president Pervez Musharraf not only permitted drone strikes, he also gave the US the exclusive use of a couple of airbases for drone operation, probably in 2003. Any doubts on that score should have been put to rest by the revelations made by Lt Gen Shahid Aziz, a former Chief of General Staff to Mr Musharraf, in his recently published autobiography.

The first known strike by a drone in Pakistan was in 2004, targeting Taliban leader Nek Mohammed Wazir. In all probability, this "hit" was requested by Mr Musharraf.

The next thing we know is that the first resistance to US drone strikes came from the Pakistan military, after Mr Musharraf relinquished the office of the Chief of Army Staff in late 2007. A US drone turned back after it was threatened by a Pakistani aircraft, but the government told the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) to back off.

At that stage, the military's resistance to drone strikes was evident. So much so that Pakistan's Air Chief Marshal Tanvir Mahmood Ahmed, in an unusual public statement in November 2008, stated that the PAF had the wherewithal to down drones "but it is up to the political leadership to decide". There was no response from the political leadership.

However, in the period from late 2008 to late 2010, the drones' "kill ratio" improved dramatically. It might have been due to inpuy from field operatives of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), since this was during the short period when intelligence cooperation between the ISI and the CIA was at its best.

Whatever the reason, the militant to "collateral damage" ratio turned upside down. From 2:10 it turned to 8:2. Perhaps the Pakistan military was also (unofficially) happy with that, since protests were muted and far between - until immediately after the release from jail in March last year of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who killed two Pakistani men he accused of trying to rob him. It was also in March that US defence secretary US Leon Panetta ordered a strike targeting a jirga (peace council) in south Waziristan, killing about 40 civilians.

This attack was followed by the first ever unequivocal protest by the Pakistan military - but still not by the government.

Since then, Pakistan has protested at regular intervals; it has raised the issue of sovereignty and the illegality of these strikes, but only mildly.

As I have previously explained on these pages, despite the drones' vast technology, they can still be inaccurate - because they rely on human intelligence ("humint"), which the CIA lacks.

There is little doubt that drone attacks have become increasingly inaccurate since early 2011, and that they are indeed counterproductive. They are a factor in swelling the ranks of terrorists as well as multiplying the numbers of anti-US Pakistanis. These facts have been substantiated in an independent report compiled jointly by the Stanford Law School and New York University's Global Justice Clinic, titled Living under drones.

So, we are back to the million-dollar-question: what prompted Ms Rehman's unequivocal statement this month?

Could it be the Stanford/NYU report, or could it be a consequence of having "tried all other options with the US"? Or could it have been prompted by the fact that the White House has decided to place Pakistan in a specially privileged position as a recipient of drone attacks? Or, is it merely because domestic elections are around the corner and the ruling party's chances don't look too bright?

There is little doubt that the coming elections played a role in the decision to adopt this stance; but, to be fair to the ruling party, all of the above reasons must have contributed to this decision. Certainly, the growing awareness within the US and among its allies that drone attacks are murdering innocent civilians indiscriminately will help Pakistan's cause.

But the bigger question is: how far is the Pakistan government prepared to go with this? Ms Rehman's pleas to journalists will not deter the US. Will Pakistan raise the issue with the toothless United Nations? Is the government prepared to back this statement up by ordering the PAF to take down intruding drones?

It is doubtful that this government will go that far. And, if it isn't prepared to go that far, Pakistan will continue to be "living under drones" for at least another four years under Barack Obama.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer