The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
In the most heavily targeted parts of Pakistan’s tribal regions -- the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in the northwest -- U.S. drone strikes are but a single form of state-sponsored killing, alongside conventional airstrikes and ground operations by Pakistan’s military, insurgent bombings, tribal hostilities, and everyday criminality. But drones occupy a special category of their own. The strikes began in 2004; they have since killed a total of 2,500 to 3,500 people. Estimates suggest that several hundred of those killed were innocent civilians. Last May, U.S. President Barack Obama said that those deaths would haunt him and his advisers for “as long as we live.”
In Pakistan, the strikes have been a source of bitter political contention from the very beginning. Broadly speaking, one side focuses on the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty while the other -- a sizeable group -- maintains that drone strikes are the least bad option for maintaining some semblance of security in a restive region. For their part, the country’s politicians hold up victims of drone strikes to serve their own ends -- to illustrate the tyranny of the United States or the unfortunate sacrifices that must be made in the name of security.
To find out how Pakistanis think about drones after living under their shadow for nearly a decade, I recently spent a month travelling to Pakistan’s large cities and small villages -- places where most people’s concerns revolve around their day-to-day struggle to make ends meet. Talk to them, and you will find that the monolithic view in the West that all Pakistanis are enraged by drone strikes is inaccurate. In fact, further north -- closer to the areas that bear the brunt of the strikes -- it is not uncommon to encounter strong support for them.
NO END IN SIGHT
Karachi is a giant swirl of nearly 21 million people, all competing to get by in their various, overlapping versions of the city. Karachi is a kind of gold rush town: everyone constantly sifts through the debris hoping to spot a golden nugget and strike it rich. It is a paradise for the fortunate few with the resources and bank balance to live in a security bubble; for most of the rest, life is a desperate grind.
Karachi is also a microcosm of Pakistan. Every ethnic and linguistic group lives here, and so all of the country’s political parties have a stake in the city. National issues are mirrored at the local level. Even armed non-state actors -- be they the Taliban, sectarian extremists, or the armed wings of political parties -- maintain an open presence. Although there is no reliable polling to gauge attitudes about drones, the city is simmering with resentment about strikes in the northwest. You see it in graffiti, you hear it from politicians, and you feel it among ordinary people in regular conversation.
On a pleasant evening sitting in the garden and sipping tea among a group of friends and family, I asked whether drone strikes were a problem. Karachi has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Electricity is a problem, water is a problem, street crime is a given. Almost everyone has a story of being held up at gunpoint, and home invasions are like a rite of passage. Did the problems of the hinterland even seep in past the local chaos?
The reaction to my question was swift. Drone strikes were a humiliation. Washington has been calling the shots in Pakistan since its independence. Didn’t I know that drones were just another means of subjugating Pakistan? The United States would never tolerate such a violation of its sovereignty. Criticism of Pakistan’s government and military flowed freely; they were complicit at every stage. It was the only way to explain why these strikes went on with no end in sight.
That last part of the conversation, about Pakistan’s complicity in the drone campaign, was the thorniest. In recent years, some evidence of collusion with the United States has become all too clear. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf admitted in an interview last April that he consented to CIA drone strikes “two or three times” during his time in office. And WikiLeaks disclosed in 2010 that former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani did not care about the damage of drone strikes, as long as they got “the right people.” There is a strong feeling that if Pakistan’s military and intelligence services aren’t directly involved in the minutiae of targeting, they are at least looking the other way. The only other option is to believe that Pakistan’s all-knowing intelligence agencies are incapable of standing up to the CIA. And few are prepared to believe that.
Faisal Mosque, in Islamabad’s north end, is the largest mosque in Pakistan. It is also the final resting place of the country’s onetime military dictator General Muhammed Zia ul-Haq. I met Karim Khan, a journalist who works for Al Jazeera Arabic, in a small park tucked behind the mosque. Kahn divides his time between Islamabad and his village in North Waziristan. His brother and son were killed by a drone strike on his family home in a village called Machi Khel, in North Waziristan, in December 2009.
Khan is tall and has a full black beard. His Urdu has a heavy Pashto accent, and mine has a hint of Canadian. He wore a dark turban; I wore jeans. We made an odd pair sitting under a tree in the park. Khan was not unfriendly, but he was blunt. And his style did not invite small talk.
He told me that drones dot the sky over his village like clouds, enough that the United States’ ubiquitous presence above makes people in the tribal areas feel like they’re living in an American colony. The drones strike at will, and it seems that nobody can stop them -- certainly not the Pakistani government, let alone the United Nations. “No one gives any judgment about them and no one makes any effort to stop them,” Khan told me. “For us, [it] is as though we are living at the mercy and generosity of the Americans. There is no force that can stop them or topple them.”
Khan says that the anonymity of drone victims makes it easy to say that their deaths were a sad but necessary sacrifice. The majority of U.S. drone strikes have hit North and South Waziristan, part of FATA, which serves as a buffer of sorts along the border with Afghanistan. The Pakistani government keeps tight reins on movement in and out of the tribal areas, and information travels slowly. As a result, the region’s reality is obscured from most Pakistanis. Their inability, and sometimes unwillingness, to consider the experience of those who actually live in the FATA has further strained Pakistan’s public discourse.
It has been four years since Khan’s brother and son were killed. “They say they are killing terrorists in my area. But what if I was to tell you that my brother had a master’s degree?” Khan says. He points out that the media often misreports who dies in the strikes. “My brother worked for the education department as a teacher and my son worked as part of the security staff in a school. What could they possibly have to do with the Taliban or with terrorists?”
DAY BY DAY
Quetta, in Pakistan’s western Balochistan province, sees some of the most insidious violence in the country. The complex web of criminal, tribal, and military actors can leave even the most experienced Pakistani analyst struggling to explain events.
On my drive from the airport, my hosts pointed out the spot where a car was recently shot up in a targeted killing; the roundabout where the local paramilitary force claimed it killed a group of Chechen suicide bombers who turned out to be neither Chechen nor suicide bombers; and a hospital that was attacked by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an anti-Shia al Qaeda affiliate.
During my time in Quetta, I asked Qadir Nayel, a local journalist working for a national Urdu newspaper, whether drone strikes were a big discussion in his circle. He said that strikes are dutifully written up in the papers -- of course they make the news -- but that they are not really an issue of general concern among the local population. It was not just that Balochistan had its own vortex of violence that kept people busy but also that there was a sense among locals that strikes in FATA might ease at least the portion of the violence that is linked to the Taliban.
There is certainly sympathy for the ordinary inhabitants of FATA who are caught up in the strikes. Over the course of many interviews, I’ve never heard anyone doubt that civilians are killed when Hellfire missiles come raining down. But there is a feeling that things are tough all over, and that as the security situation has turned dire the tradeoffs have naturally become starker.
It was a sentiment I heard repeated in the city of Peshawar as well. Adil Zareef is a doctor who teaches at the city’s medical college. He has a keen interest in climate change and the preservation of local heritage, but said that most concerns have become subordinate to the security problem. “Security issues have overtaken us. The environment, human rights, and health have all become secondary. Security comes first and the state has put them first; it has subsumed all other issues,” Zareef says.
Peshawar is the closest settled area to FATA. There are now regular reports of Taliban foot soldiers patrolling city neighborhoods at night. I talked to a man hosting guests from a nearby village who had come to Peshawar to have their case heard in a Taliban court. Justice may be harsh in those courts, but, unlike Pakistani courts, it is also swift.
Zareef was born and raised in a different Peshawar. When we spoke, he reminisced a great deal about the Peshawar of the past -- the liberal culture, the parties, the foreign tourists. Today, the constant killing, the suicide bombings of markets, and mosque and church attacks have left him a wreck. He is on antidepressants and focuses mostly on muddling through the day.
“Our best friends, our kin, and the most beautiful and brightest have been killed. Tribal leaders and ordinary people in FATA are being killed. I think the militants are a bigger threat to us than the drones,” Zareef says.
Zareef is not unbothered by the deaths from drone strikes in FATA, but he says that the people of his province are facing a choice between survival and extinction. “After the last blast in Sher Ghar, I received a message asking me how many more were we going to bury,” he says. “Every time someone dies, we say, ‘Are we next?’ We’re on the firing line.”
Pakistanis know that the United States will not end its drone program in Pakistan anytime soon. And so the polarized debates will continue. But for those who live the closest to the strike zones, drones are not some abstract talking point. Just getting through the day has become a high-stakes game. Adil Zareef feels that each day could be his last. And for Karim Khan, the possibility of dying in a strike, like his son and brother before him, remains all too real.