In time, an insidious practice assumes the property of custom. It might seem barbaric and archaic, but as the great Sophist Protagoras claimed, man is the measure of all things. A ghastly measure, at that.
This ghastliness was on full show on Friday with the death of the otherwise elusive Taliban militant Hakimullah Mehsud. Along with five other militants, he was killed after leaving a meeting at a mosque in the Dande Darpakhel area, located in North Waziristan (Guardian, Nov 3). It is reported that Mehsud was in the process of discussing with militants the prospects of opening peace negotiations with Islamabad when the drone struck.
Islamabad have been keen to involve Mehsud in negotiations, and the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, had announced last week that incipient peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP) had commenced. Pakistani Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid muddied the context somewhat by claiming that this had not, as yet, taken place. The feelers had, however, been put out.
The response from Washington remains the usual tip-toeing effort when it comes to remotely waged warfare against distantly located militants: to admit that the war is reaping rewards and bodies; but that the use of drones in violation of the sovereignty of an ally is taking place without actually taking place.
The problem with such strikes, and their inevitable protest from various officials in Islamabad, is the double game at play. Public protest is inevitable, the coat and varnish required for the political machine and public consumption. Prime Minister Sharif exemplified this in his recent official visit to the White House, asking President Obama on October 23 to cease deploying drones in Pakistan. No one wants to be seen to be embracing the US effort lest they be deemed collaborators in the demise of their own country.
Instead, Washington relies on private, unvoiced support from their ally. According to Democrat Congressman Alan Grayson, as reported on BBC Urdu, Pakistan’s air force was more than capable in imposing restrictions on its borders. Their army was equipped to quell the “handful” of militants in the Tribal areas, begging the question why their casualty rates are supposedly so high. The attacks were taking place with consent from Islamabad, who, in a masochistic play of power, have outsourced their security challenges to the efforts of foreign, airborne efforts.
And the Pakistan defence ministry is doing the maths on mortality, announcing on Wednesday that 317 drone strikes in the tribal areas had killed 67 civilians and 2,160 militants since 2008. On October 29, some days after the Sharif-Obama meeting, the US President was slated to attend a meeting with CEOs of Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman, those formidable representatives of America’s drone effort.
The attack immediately caused consternation for one obvious effect. It had killed a figure potentially instrumental in opening the channels for negotiation. But as tribal engagement is hardly the strong suit of American foreign, or military policy, Mehsud was merely a marked militant and designated target. He was said to have been behind the suicide bombing that killed seven Central intelligence Agency employees in Afghanistan in 2009. As the impeccable cartoon villain, the necessary staple of America’s messianic mission, he was, in the words of US Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, “a bad guy” (Bloomberg News, Nov 3) who had placed American troops in danger. He would be liquidated at all cost – with the emphasis seemingly on all. “I feel a little better for our troops today than I did before this event happened.”
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan was direct and gloomy in his assessment. “This is not just the killing of one person, it’s the death of all peace efforts.” Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), never one to embrace the drone program or the enthusiastic violations of Pakistani sovereignty practiced on daily basis by the US forces, is furious. He promises to block lorries carrying supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan, though his elegance of wording is not necessarily matched by an elegance of execution.
The campaign in Pakistan’s own wars against the militants in the tribal areas has been savage, costing over 50,000 lives to the security effort alone. It remains an endless book of conflict, to be stopped only by the efforts of the fighters themselves with involvement from Islamabad. Irrespective of what various silent voices in Islamabad are suggesting about continued drone strikes, Washington continues to show an astonishing ignorance in the currency of such military exchanges: for each surgically targeted infliction of death comes the prospect of more militancy, not less. Grayson’s maths is questionable at best, and aerial robotics is a poor substitute for the politics of peace.
Missiles, whatever the dreamers of the military industrial complex claim, do not make peace. The deaths of family members tends to lead to the taking up of arms, with promises of vengeance. A Pakistani Taliban spokesman has given one such solemn promise, drawing upon this vicious exchange. “Every drop of Hakimullah’s blood will turn into a suicide bomber.” Pakistan’s citizens are bracing for the carnage.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org