One of the issues that has come up repeatedly this year is thequestion of the effectiveness of US drone strikes in Pakistan. How do you think theseattacks have affected the US-Pakistan relationship?
The fallout from US drone strikes in Pakistan isn’t limited to the significant – but diminishing – collateral damage. The worst side effect isn’t increased terrorist recruitment, but the long-standing official information blackout about the drone programme. Most Pakistanis see drones as robbers of their national sovereignty. But instead of explaining the how and whys of the complex Washington-Islamabad counterterrorism partnership, Pakistani elected officials exercise hypocrisy: publicly censuring Washington while secretly fuelling drones and providing Pakistani spotters.
In the past 22 months, US drone operators and Pakistani spies have worked closely to degrade al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Taliban. Cornered in North Waziristan, these groups have lost significant territory, training grounds and IED (improvised explosive device) factories. This has caused a dramatic decrease in cross-border attacks in north-eastern Afghanistan from Pakistan’s northern tribal agencies. In 2010, suicide attacks in Pakistan decreased by 50 percent from 2009.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Yet the fact that today’s drone strikes are more precise, causing fewer innocent civilian deaths, are consistently approved by Islamabad for five years, and are a product of close US-Pakistan cooperation doesn’t matter to most of the 180 million Pakistanis. I don’t blame them. Instead of puncturing long-standing myths by reasoned discourse, Pakistani democrats fail to inform or incorporate conspiracy-driven Pakistanis. Islamabad defends this secrecy as necessary for stability and for keeping al-Qaeda and the Taliban at bay. The price, however, is increasingly untenable: swelling anti-Americanism.
So there’s significant damage being done to public perceptions of the US by these attacks?
All national polls indicate a general anger with US drone attacks. The numbers change, however, when we zoom into provinces, especially Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and areas like Swat and Mohmand where denizens support drone strikes against al-Qaeda, Pakistani Taliban and rival tribes. Moreover, most Pakistanis are unaware that their generals and democratically elected representatives have allowed, supported, increased and improved drone strikes for years. During 2009 Pakistani counterinsurgency operations, US drones targeted Pakistani Taliban safe havens in South Waziristan. Today they continue to target Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan, degrading their suicide attack capabilities.
Unfortunately, Islamabad intentionally keeps ordinary Pakistanis in the dark, leaving them with media-driven conspiracy theories to comprehend US-Pakistan relations. This is a recipe for disaster, because eventually the institutions we rely on, such as the military, interior ministry, presidency and cabinet, will have Pakistanis born, raised, and educated in an atmosphere of anti-Americanism. So we have to bolster our efforts to explain and advocate our policy toward Pakistan.
Were you surprised that Barack Obama didn’t fit a trip to Pakistan into his Asia tour last month?
President Obama has committed to visiting Pakistan in 2011. While it’s never wise to skip a key ally on a trip to Asia that includes dancing in India – Pakistan’s arch-enemy – an exclusive trip next year should more than make up for it.