The cloak of secrecy and mendacity that covers the shadow war the United States is waging in Pakistan undermines democratic values both in the battle against the Taliban and back home. Our strategy relies on backroom deals, on proxy warriors and private mercenaries, on the complicity of a corrupt Pakistani government, on mechanized drone attacks, and on public deceit. And that’s why, when Judith McHale, the Obama Administration’s new under secretary of state for diplomacy and public affairs, arrived in Pakistan, she was told by the prominent Pakistani journalist Ansar Abbasi, “You should know that we all hate Americans. From the bottom of our souls, we hate you.”
The full extent of America’s game in Pakistan is impossible to know; it seems to have utter control over the Pakistani government under Asif Ali Zardari. Whether he was actually bought or simply believes that his only chance of staying in power is to slavishly obey American desires must remain a subject for speculation. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when Zardari met with President Obama on May 6 and 7, about twelve hours before the offensive in Swat materialized out of nothingness, or rather materialized out of a terrified army and peace treaty with the Taliban ceding the territory. That offensive created an internal refugee crisis and humanitarian disaster. Pakistanis feel that American interests are at odds with their own: America wants to annihilate the Taliban, but Pakistan needs peace and stability so that moderate and liberal elements can be fostered on a grassroots level. Clearly, Zardari has been convinced of the American point of view. But as that big picture remains stubbornly opaque to the civilian viewer, I want to turn to another battle being waged in Pakistani territory, along the Afghanistan border. Although that battle is part of the war in Afghanistan, its impact on Pakistan is overlooked and very important.
The war in the tribal areas, in the Northwest Provinces and Waziristan is primarily fought with unmanned drones, which routinely fire Hellfire missiles into homes, schools, and caves. The most recent of these attacks occurred on Tuesday, (September 8), killing ten, following one on Monday (September 7), killing six, etc. They’ve been going on for over two years, they are barely reported upon in the American media, and they have become an uncontrollable fact of life in the region. It is impossible to know how many of the casualties of these attacks are Taliban fighters; there have been high-profile targets (most notably Baitullah Meshud, a Taliban leader killed on August 5), but there have certainly innocent deaths. Providing hospitality to strangers who may or may not be Taliban fighters amounts to a death sentence under the reign of the drones—and the culture of the region prizes hospitality as a sacred duty.
The drone attacks are massively unpopular in Pakistan, and understandably so. Try, for a moment, to imagine life under the drones; they are constantly overhead, gathering intelligence, watching, and you never know when they’ll decide to strike. They’re literally inhuman, faceless, soulless—it’s straight out of science fiction—and this in a tribal, rural area where people might travel days to see a TV or a telephone. That the attacks continue uninterrupted into the holy month of Ramazan adds insult to injury.
The prevailing discourse within Pakistan is that the drones violate Pakistani sovereignty, and it’s a line that the Zardari government periodically trots out in public. The Obama administration leads us to believe that Zardari, like his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, allows the US to operate its drones with impunity, and that the public stance is purely for the sake of public opinion. But Pakistanis aren’t as stupid as we seem to assume they are; they know that their government cannot and will not move to stop the drones. Indeed, until recently, the Pakistanis were using intelligence gathered by drones. It reveals to the world the dishonesty of the Zardari government and makes it appear (rightly) cowed and enslaved to America, further weakening support not only for this incarnation of the American puppet government in Pakistan, but also the ideal of democracy in the country. The Taliban don’t need a propaganda machine, they only need to point to the sky where the drones fly, having taken off from a base within Pakistan.
But the obfuscation isn’t limited to the Pakistani government. Both the American government and the Pakistani government refuse to publicly comment upon or confirm any of the drone attacks, as if there is some reason why the drone attacks should be beyond public debate, as if by keeping the operation classified they escape responsibility for it. Perhaps they do—through subcontracting it to private mercenaries. The New York Times recently reported that the drone operations are carried out by Blackwater, the same thugs we last saw killing and torturing Iraqis. There may be nothing technically illegal about this, but I find it deeply unsettling that our murder machines should be operated so far away from democratic institutions or public debate.
JED BICKMAN can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org