It was Obama who punctured Nawaz Sharif’s balloon taking all the hot air out of it.
Obama had played host to the Pakistani PM in the White House on October 23. He said not a word about the deadly drones that have been wreaking havoc on Pakistan’s tribal belt along the Afghan border. However, Nawaz, taking advantage of his Oval Office audience, made a fervent plea to his host to halt these strikes. He did so because his government — like the one before it — is under enormous pressure from the people of Pakistan to seek an end to the nightmare of frequent drone visitations.
None of the public or private accounts of the Obama-Nawaz encounter claimed the former made any commitment — or gave indication of any kind — to the latter to even consider reducing the frequency of drone strikes against targets in Pakistan, much less halt them altogether.
However, Nawaz tried to put a spin of his own on the issue, with both he and his minions claiming to the media that vibes from Obama were good and encouraging and there was good reason to believe that drone strikes would be drastically reduced, soon, if not ended altogether.
Nawaz was obviously playing politics. He’d embarked on his Washington yatra assuring the people of Pakistan that he’d be pulling no punches to seek an end to the scourge of drones from his Washington host. His spin was understandable. It was typical of a leader given to giving airs to his stature. But the Pakistani people weren’t ready to buy his bombast. They’d heard such claims before, besides knowing so well their leaders’ craven pusillanimity when it comes to standing up to Washington.
They didn’t have to wait long for their leader’s bravado to unravel. The bluff was called when a drone struck Miranshah, the hub of the Pakistani Taliban in the notoriously wild and violent North Waziristan, on October 31 — merely eight days after Nawaz’ White House appearance. It killed at least three people: terrorists, according to Washington, innocent civilians, according to Pakistani sources.
A deadlier aftershock followed the next day, when a precision drone strike took out Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and four of his prime lieutenants, but also touching off another cyclic crisis of confidence between Islamabad and Washington.
The Government of Pakistan’s (GOP) reaction to Hakimullah’s death has been unusually sharp and combative, given that he was mortal enemy of the State of Pakistan, recognising neither its writ nor the sanctity of the law of the land. In a blunt and almost harsh media statement, interior minister Chaudhry Nisar, a crony of Nawaz, pointed the finger at Washington for sabotaging the peace process just hours before it was to be launched with TTP. Nisar threatened to review the spectrum of relations with Washington.
In another unusual move, the American ambassador was summoned to the foreign office and given a dressing-down for scuttling the peace process with the Taliban so close to a kick-off.
Why should GOP be so worked up and betray signs of paroxysm over the elimination of a deadly enemy who’d shown no mercy against the people of Pakistan — killed by the thousands in acts of TTP-spawned terrorism — is obviously a cause of concern to political pundits. What adds to their surprise is that Nawaz has been so very keen — almost desperate — since returning to power to seek the best of relations with Washington for his basket-case country. Why should his government wish to jeopardise all that just because a terrorist leader had been liquidated?
Or is it that GOP — in fact the whole ruling elite of Pakistan — wants to cover its own footprints on the landscape of the prickly drone attacks blamed for killing more innocent civilians than suspected or actual terrorists?
Complicity of the Pakistani establishment — both civilian and military — has been suspected and alleged for a long time in the context of drone attacks by the CIA and US military combine. WikiLeaks had stirred up a hornet’s nest on the issue when it revealed a duplicitous Pakistani leadership telling Washington to deploy drones with impunity against Pakistani targets and not be put off by the political leadership making theatrical noises only to assuage the people.
GOP’s complicity in what the international comity of jurists and human rights groups have routinely decried as violations of international law came to another boil on the heels of Nawaz’ Washington appearance, only to steal so much thunder from his claim of championing the cause of Pakistani victims of drones.
A vivid inkling of what would be real championing of civilian victims of drones, dismissed by the Washington elite as “collateral damage”, was provided by Democratic Congressman from Florida Alan Grayson, when he produced before the House Foreign Affairs Committee the surviving members of a 67-year-old grandmother killed in a drone attack last year in Waziristan. The appearance of Momina Bibi’s progeny touched many a sensitive nerve in US and Pakistan.
Grayson followed his cri de coeur with a blunt BBC interview on October 29 in which he claimed that GOP, especially its military part, “could control the situation and ease the lives of thousands of citizens” burdened by the drone attacks but only “if they wanted”. Grayson was unsparing of the Pakistani military for being pointedly complicit in what the people of Pakistan see as a crime against humanity. The Pakistani intelligentsia too has long been critical of the military establishment turning a blind eye to the American drone attacks, while playing possum for domestic consumption. Some of the military brass has publicly touted the surgical efficiency of the drones in combating murky terrorists.
Nisar has unleashed another controversy between the civilian and military components of GOP by unwittingly hawking the ridiculous figure of just 67 civilian deaths in drone attacks over the past four years, which flies in the face of the Foreign Office’s tally of at least 400 innocent victims. The FO had furnished this number to the UN Rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, earlier in March. Interestingly, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch put the number of innocent Pakistani victims at over 900.
Nisar was obviously touting the figures fed by the military brass. However, his robust espousal of the devil’s advocate has not only invited an angry civilian backlash but further fuelled the debate that the military establishment has its own footprints aplenty over the killing fields spawned by the deadly drones. Truth may take long to sift from mounds of conflicting accounts. But whatever the outcome the agony of drones’ unsuspecting victims — and grieving survivors — is unlikely to end anytime soon.
Karamatullah K Ghori is a former Pakistani diplomat.