Drone Attacks on Pakistan’s Indigenous Tribes

In a case filed with the Pakistan Supreme Court, the petitioner states: “The Americans, like in Musharraf’s time, have also been given a free hand by President Zardari and fundamental rights of the (indigenous) people are being violated daily in tribal areas and (in northern areas of) Dir, Swat and Chitral. A large number of (indigenous) people have migrated from these areas and suffered tremendous losses with no hope of returning to their homes because of US drone attacks, but the government is sitting as a silent spectator.”

Since August 2008, nearly 60 drone strikes in tribal and other northern areas have massacred over 500 individuals belonging to a population that qualifies as indigenous people under international law. The majority of victims are poor and frightened men, women, and children. They have little to do with militants who are fighting the NATO occupation forces in Afghanistan. To escape future drone massacres of their families, thousands of residents living in target areas, have left their homes and businesses to seek asylum in other parts of Pakistan. Wretched stories of these internally displaced persons (IDPs) and their trail of tears have made little news in the international media.

After extending a hand of friendship to the Muslim world in his inaugural speech, President Barack Hussein Obama has personally authorized the continuance of drone attacks. In hopes of destroying the nesting places of Muslim militancy, the Obama administration is poised to expanding the drone warfare to other parts of Pakistan. Presuming that Pakistan is secretly supporting drone strikes, the vengeful militants have begun to attack the citadel cities of Lahore and Islamabad. As drone attacks continue to kill and generate the IDPs among the indigenous population and as militants undertake retaliatory measures in major cities, the nuclear-armed Pakistan is predicted to plunge into uncontrollable chaos and carnage threatening international peace and security.

Before Pakistan turns into another Iraq, the Obama administration should reconsider the wisdom and legality of drone strikes as a means of fighting the militants in Pakistan.

Self-Righteous Militarism

For the indigenous people of tribal areas, the drone aircraft has turned into a despised symbol of American militarism, even though the United States armed forces and the CIA have not even once assumed responsibility for drone attacks. Ironically, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other Central Asian Muslim states, the drone has previously been known as a note or chord which is continuously repeated in musical pieces, Sufi songs, most notably in qawwalis. Torn from its musical connotations, the drone is now associated with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) engaged in repeated massacres. UAVs perform a host of military functions, including intelligence gathering, surveillance, and launching missiles on electronically-nominated targets. For the indigenous people of Pakistan, however, the drone is a white American jahaz (aircraft) that, all too often around the time of morning prayer, sneaks into the tribal airspace,  strikes fragile houses and compounds, and murders scores of people in each sortie.

In deploying military might, American policymakers consistently fail to comprehend a simple point: No nation looks forward to foreign military attacks. Be it in the Philippines, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, the American military is rarely seen as a force of liberation or virtue. The American armed forces did serve the cause of liberation in the Second World War. Even during the Cold War, the American military retained some of its moral underpinnings. No longer, however, is the American military welcome in developing nations. Ignoring this plain truth, American policymakers, driven by unexamined self-righteousness, continue to impose deadly military solutions over complex geopolitical problems.

The drone attacks in Pakistan, which has been a submissive American ally for more than sixty years, complicate problems and not simplify them. They invite retaliation from militants and sow resentment in the Muslim world. Killing the indigenous people in Pakistan under the Obama flag will be as unsuccessful as has been killing Iraqi people under the Bush flag.

Unlawful Collateral Damage

Drone attacks are not only unwise, they are also unlawful. Even when perpetrated with Pakistan’s permission, drone attacks are violations of international law because they produce unacceptably high collateral damage. Collateral damage is a military term to describe damage caused to civilians, facilities, equipment, and property while attacking a lawful military target. The damage can occur to friendly, neutral, or enemy forces. “Such damage is not unlawful so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage anticipated from the attack.” As a rule, therefore, the military benefit must be much higher than the cost of collateral damage. A military strike is unlawful if the collateral damage exceeds lawful military advantage. In tribal areas, the collateral damage has been egregiously high since drone strikes kill hundreds of civilians in order to neutralize a few militants. On the basis of casualty count alone, the drone attacks are contrary to international law.

These attacks turn blatantly illegal when the collateral damage is fully assessed and aggregated. In addition to causing death and injury to non-combatants, drone attacks degrade the social and economic life of indigenous tribes. As noted above, hundreds of families have fled targeted areas to seek refuge elsewhere. Small businesses that sustain communities have been disrupted. Facing the uncertainty of drone attacks, parents decline to send children to schools. When American officials threaten to broaden the drone warfare, panic and the consequent social and economic disruptions are further increased. The physical, social, and economic cost inflicted on the tribal areas cannot be justified under the limited military advantage that drone attacks yield to the United States.

If the Obama administration is serious in turning the page in the Muslim world and if the American war on terror, which is shifting from the Middle East to South Asia, is to be conducted under the rule of law, the drone attacks against indigenous populations of Pakistan’s tribal areas must immediately be called off.

LIAQUAT ALI KHAN is professor of law at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas, and the author of the book, A Theory of International Terrorism (2006).

L. Ali Khan is the founder of Legal Scholar Academy and an Emeritus Professor of Law at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. He welcomes comments at legal.scholar.academy@gmail.com.