By Cyril Almeida
‘AS I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base.’ With those words Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee, blew the lid off one of the most controversial military programmes in Pakistan’s history.
So remarkable was her pronouncement — effectively throwing a major partner in the war on terror to the pit bulls in the opposition — that it immediately raised the question, why now?
Seems the Americans got tired of Pakistani complaints and wanted to send a direct message: the programme is here to stay, it’s effective, we’re going to stick with it, now stop pretending you don’t have a clue. Call it tough love.
But here in Pakistan, many people outside the army and the government are also bewildered by the statement. It really makes little political sense.
First, let me clarify that there’s no love lost for the army or the government on the issue. Everyone’s heard the public denials for a while now. But in private too officials have rigidly stuck to the line and flatly denied any involvement in the drone strikes, even though logic suggested otherwise.
Taken at their word, i.e. no Pakistani involvement, the increasing accuracy of the strikes could only mean the Americans had built up a network of informants in Fata that was wide, deep and effective and that the Pakistani security establishment had simply stood aside. But that was unrealistic; remember, even during the height of the first Afghan war Pakistan fiercely opposed direct American access to Fata and its web of jihadis.
So it was always difficult to believe that we had allowed the Americans to not just own the skies above Fata but have spies on the ground to tell the drones where to point their cameras and Hellfire missiles.
Yet, and this point can’t be stressed enough, even among those who had put two and two together, the working assumption was that Pakistan’s fingerprints on the drone policy would be faint enough to keep the public from knowing unambiguously what’s going on.
The strategy of protests and complaints by the state made some sense from this perspective. Sure, the government took some flak for being half-hearted in its denials, but so mysterious is the drone technology to the ordinary man and so believable is the Americans’ reputation as go-it-alone cowboys, that connecting all the dots was difficult — and dissipated some of the public’s rage.
Sen Feinstein’s statement has destroyed that always dubious strategy. Complaining that drone strikes are counter-productive when you are now known to be involved in their production is no longer an option — though the government and army may stick to it a while longer as it scrambles to develop a new public line.
But all the talk about drones over the last week has revealed, at least in private, another disturbing aspect of the programme: the Americans need us but they don’t trust us.
In the secretive world of counter-terrorism cooperation, it’s hard to get anything more than scanty details on what is happening on the ground. But it does appear that while the Americans are keen to use our soil for launching the drones and do receive information from us about potential targets, they aren’t ready to allow Pakistan any ownership of the programme. Far from being equal partners in the programme, we remain at the periphery, feeding an American set-up with information and not involved in the operation of the drones themselves.
The fear is obvious: Pakistan’s old game of differentiating between good and bad militants may still be on, and the Americans are worried that access to the inner sanctums of the drone operation may allow us to occasionally slip warning to some militants that Hellfires are coming their way.
Resolving that trust deficit in private has not been possible in the seven years the Americans have been in this neighbourhood; now Feinstein’s statement has ensured that its sordid details will be hashed out in public.
Frankly, the more Feinstein’s statement echoes in the media chamber, the more it seems like a deliberate slip by the Americans that wasn’t quite thought through. Frustration with our public denials probably boiled over and the new administration may have wanted to clear the decks but this was an odd way of doing it.
The Pakistan army and government — and let’s not pretend that the Americans could operate drones from Pakistan purely on the say-so of the civilians — have come out looking really bad.
Damaging revelations have been survived before; Musharraf’s revelation in his biography that we handed over hundreds of detainees to the Americans and collected the bounties comes to mind. But that was a different environment. For one, Musharraf was the government and didn’t have to pay much attention to public opinion or political opposition. For another, the renditions occurred in secret.
Drone strikes, on the other hand, are front page news and are taking place in an environment where both the army and the politicians have less room to manoeuvre.
Every strike from now will be a reminder to the public of our own institutions’ perfidy and complicity and anti-Americanism will be matched by disgust at our own institutions.
That can’t possibly be good for the stability of our institutions, something the Americans shouldn’t have been so cavalier about. The more rent our institutions are by dissent, the less effective can we be as a partner of the Americans in the fight against militancy.
The other problem is that Feinstein’s revelation has dragged its most effective counter-terrorism operation into a political vortex with no escape. Drones are getting so good at what they are meant to do, killing the bad guys while limiting collateral damage, that it’s hard to think of a better strategy in the remote villages and fields of Fata. Sending in Pakistani troops is expensive, when it comes to fighting a counter-insurgency they aren’t considered up to scratch, and casualties or hostage-taking is an ever-present threat.
Now that Feinstein has ended the secrecy, the best way forward is obvious: grant Pakistan some ownership of the drone programme, make sure the public is aware that the ownership is real and meaningful, and widen the list of targets to include the militants fighting the Pakistani state.
The problem is equally obvious: the Americans don’t want to share their drones with us. But they should think hard about this; the political pain of being outed by the Americans far outweighs the potential operational losses from the possibility of having a spy on board.