The recent killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), by US drone strikes, and the subsequent protests in Islamabad highlight the dilemma Pakistan faces - incapable to draw a line between supporting a homicidal militant and condemning drone attacks.
In October 2013, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch produced a joined report holding the US responsible for violating international law and accused it of committing war crimes in both Pakistan and Yemen. The issue of drone strikes will always be under the scanner for legitimacy because the covert programme is carried out in the shadows of international law. The legality of the issue will always be contested. The US will be charged with human rights violation and breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty, and Pakistan for its complicity.
The recent efforts by Nawaz Sharif to open a fresh round of high-stakes peace negotiations with home-grown insurgents, the TTP, have supposedly been sabotaged by the killing of Mehsud. The vehement reactions from Pakistan highlight the hypocritical nature of the state and how divided the public opinion is when it comes to issues of national security. In the light of these observations, there are some broader questions that can be posed.
With the growing domestic pressure within Pakistan to stop drone attacks, can we expect the state to take a stand and actually come forward with a coherent voice to represent itself in the international community? Can a small/medium power like Pakistan afford to act as a balancer against a superpower without fearing repercussions?
Divided they Stand
US-Pakistan relations are a long tale of abandonment, exploitation and treachery. The US became close to Pakistan and used it to counter USSR during the Cold War, and abandoned it during most of the 1990s with the imposition of an oil embargo against Pakistan. The two countries once again joined hands against global terrorism post 9/11. However, the strategies adopted to combat the war on terror have brought immense criticism against both and has further hindered relations.
Then came the drone drama.
The TTP has time and again plotted against the Pakistani army and government and conducted attacks with devastating effects on the lives of innocent civilians. Ironically, the death of the ruthless figure, Mehsud, was not openly welcomed by Pakistani pundits. While Imran Khan renewed his threat to block NATO military supply lines, Chaudhary Nisar Ali, Pakistan’s interior minister, accused the US of disrupting peace talks with Taliban. The media further heightened anti-American sentiments. Bill Roggio, who monitors drone strikes at the Long War Journal, remarked, “Even those of us who watch Pakistan closely don’t know where they stand anymore. It’s such a double game.” (Drone Drama, 1 November 2013).
Talks with the Taliban were bound to fail; they might have had a slim chance of success somewhere down the line but as history testifies, such talks have never reaped any benefit given that the movement’s main aim is to overthrow the state itself. The killing has further taken the wind out of the sails of the proposed talks.
The reactions that come from Pakistan also bring to surface the divided military and civilian thinking in Pakistan. There are also Pakistanis who fear to raise their voice and express support for the killing. Some of these exceptions were evident in the Pakistani military who seemed delighted at the demise of a hated figure.
Can Pakistan Act as a Balancer?
If this hypocritical nature of the state is done away with, and strong measures are taken to end drone strikes, will Pakistan succeed? Will it be equivalent to declaring war on a superpower?
The Obama administration has reportedly made a quiet decision to resume military and economic assistance to Pakistan; it plans on sending more than US$1.6 billion in aid to Pakistan as a gesture to thaw the freeze in US-Pakistan relations. It is the risk of this loss of support that Pakistan fears.
Micheal Boyle argues that “US drone strikes in Pakistani territory serve as powerful signals of these governments’ helplessness and subservience to the United States” [International Affairs, ‘The costs and consequences of drone warfare’, 89:1 (2013) 1–29]. He writes that as a result, "a stable set of partnerships for counterterrorism cooperation" becomes "difficult, if not impossible."
Pakistan, from where it stands today, is not in a position to take concrete measures to counter the US. Its dilapidated political structure and a struggling economy do not permit it to act as a balancer as it wants to preserve its security and interests. It is aware of the fact that the cost of opposing the US will exceed the benefits. Hence Pakistan will prefer to let the US gain disproportionately, because the latter can take what it wants anyway.
Pakistan will continue double-dealing: denounce drones in publicl and comply with the US backstage.