Foreign and Defense Policy

Islamabad needs to acknowledge the existence of drone program

Earlier this week, President Obama laid out a strong defense of using drone aircraft to target al Qaeda and Taliban militants inside Pakistan, and thus for the first time officially acknowledged the CIA’s “worst-kept secret” program that has increased significantly under his watch. The president’s remarks will put new pressure on his administration to further explain and justify the legality, utility, and morality of the program to Congress and rights groups, and, as my colleague Marc Thiessen points out, it also exposes the program to a “greater risk of successful legal challenges.”

On the positive side, however, the president’s public acknowledgment will now give more leeway to the administration to counter damaging misinformation vis-à-vis the program in Pakistan. The drone strikes have provoked outrage across Pakistan not because the attacks kill terrorists, but because both politicians and militants constantly remind the people that the attacks violate their country’s sovereignty and mostly kill civilians. In reality, both these claims are inaccurate.

First, most of the drone strikes have been conducted with the permission of, and sometimes in coordination with, the Pakistani government. In a U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in 2008 asked Washington for “continuous Predator coverage” in South and North Waziristan, and in another leaked cable, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is quoted as saying: “I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.” Publicly, however, the Pakistani leaders condemn the strikes.

Second, reports about civilian casualties are mostly unsubstantiated as they rely on information provided by the Taliban. After each attack, the militants cordon off and bar everyone from visiting the attack site, and then announce that all or most of the casualties were civilians. The sensationalist Pakistani media not only publishes the Taliban’s accounts, but also multiplies misperceptions that largely go unchallenged by Islamabad and Washington. As a result, the opposition and religious parties have exploited the issue to weaken President Zardari’s government and force Islamabad to distance itself from Washington. On January 27, more than 100,000 people massed in Karachi to protest the strikes.

The reality is that the drone strikes, as my colleague Sadanand Dhume argues, have proven to be the least indiscriminate option available for the U.S. military to target terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The attacks have disrupted the activities of terrorist groups and killed over 2,000 militants over the past years, including high value targets, such as Baitullah Mehsud, former leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and Shaikh Sa’id Masri, al Qaeda’s No. 3 leading the group’s operations in Afghanistan.

Now that Washington has acknowledged the controversial program, it is time for Islamabad to follow suit. It will help counter the terrorists’ propaganda about civilian casualties and mitigate rising anti-American sentiment that is damaging ties between Pakistan and the United States.

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