Analysis: Pakistan sings new song on drones now that it, not US, is using them

As new drone club members may cease to criticize and even copy US tactics, human rights critics may shift their criticism from the US to the new drone users.

March 29, 2015 07:15
4 minute read.

THIS HERON drone is of a type recently featured in Northern Command drills aimed at improving responses to attempted infiltrations by terrorists.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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After years of slamming the US for using drones in targeted killings on its soil in which civilians died as collateral damage, Pakistan announced on March 13 that its own drone fleet is now doing the same.

Of course, Pakistan would present distinctions.

It would say it is using drones in mountainous regions to attack terrorists who otherwise are unreachable and where civilians are less likely to be present – and in any case the battle relates to its territory and its civilians.

Pakistan would say it needed a harsh response to a direct and vicious Taliban terrorist attack that slaughtering more than 100 Pakistani children in December.

In contrast, it would say that US drone attacks on al-Qaida or other terrorist members have a much more tenuous connection to self-defense and are operating in foreign territory and against foreign civilians (Pakistan’s).

But make no mistake about it. Pakistan’s less-sophisticated drones are likely to kill, as collateral damage, as many or more civilians as US drones.

So what justifies Pakistan’s seeming double-standard? Part of the answer is that Pakistan’s objection to the US’s use of drones was always less about morality and more an expression of wanting to control the use of force in its territory.

The US regularly justifies drone strikes saying that they actually save civilians lives – being more exact in targeting than manned airplanes.

In contrast, Pakistan justified its new drone fleet as an issue of saving costs in that keeping drones in the air is far cheaper than keeping manned aircraft flying.

It did not mention the issue of casualties.

One human rights critic of both the US and Pakistan told The New Yorker in an extensive article on the issue that Pakistani intelligence over the years may even have intentionally given faulty intelligence to the US on some drone strikes to set the US up for an embarrassment (killing civilians who Pakistan told it were terrorists).

Yet part of the answer still likely relates to Pakistan’s finally understanding the violence the US was coping with when it was fighting the Taliban on Pakistan’s behalf.

In that sense, Pakistan’s joining the list of countries using attack drones (and possibly up to 23 other countries trying to join the list) probably signals more of a break between two groups of critics of the US who coincided on the issue until now, than it does a complete end to criticism.

Many countries that criticized US drone use may now decide that it is simply too necessary in fighting hard-to-find terrorists and too powerful a weapon to forgo.

Some commentators go as far as to say that in around 10 years, any country that wants attack drones will likely use the technology.

This phenomenon echoes the pattern of the US and other Western allies endorsing targeted killings of terrorists even “off the battlefield” after September 11, 2001, altered their view of the terror threat, despite having been harsh critics of Israel using the tactic in the 1990s to fight terrorism.

In other words, having to confront terrorism has a way of moving the goalposts on legitimizing the use of more aggressive military tactics.

There may be countries, like Afghanistan, which still sometimes criticize US drone attacks, but one could argue that those countries are sticking to being critics only because they do not have the technology to develop their own drones like Pakistan and the others.

As new drone club members may cease to criticize and even copy US tactics, human rights critics may shift their criticism from the US to the new drone users.

Depending on how many countries join the club and how quickly they join, the popularity of drones and the perceived need to use them to fight terrorists using guerrilla tactics may simply overpower and roll back the critics into being less influential in the public dialogue.

This, even though critics in recent years succeeded in getting the US to be more cautious using drones.

This does not mean that the US will be in a position where it can feel smug on the issue, but it does mean that it will be able to defend itself to its shrinking number of critics by noting that some of its old critics have become converts.

This conversion trend will also allow the US to argue that former critics, once under pressure from their own terror problems, accepted its argument that there is no equally viable alternative to drones for fighting terrorists using guerrilla tactics.

None of this means that every aggressive means of warfare is justified or that human rights criticism does not influence countries’ military behavior.

But it does mean that many new methods, such as drones, are likely here to stay.

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