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Readings: Pir Zubair Shah, My Drone War

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Monday, February 27, 2012 at 7:27 AM

Journalist Pir Zubair Shah writes in the March-April 2012 issue of Foreign Policy. My Drone War: American drones have changed everything for al Qaeda and its local allies in Pakistan, becoming a fact of life in a secret war that is far from over.  Note the concluding paragraphs:

As the [drone] strikes have continued, they have given rise to a narrative that explains away the country’s worsening radicalization and extremist violence as a product of the drones — a narrative that has served as a bargaining chip for Pakistani leaders in their dealings with the United States as they once again raise the price of Pakistan’s cooperation in the war. (After a November 2011 incident in Mohmand district in which NATO forces mistakenly killed Pakistani soldiers, the first thing Pakistan demanded was the evacuation of the Shamsi air base in Baluchistan province, which had been used by the Americans for launching drones over the tribal areas; pictures of the emptied base immediately flashed across the Pakistani media.) In reality, the country’s worsening anti-Americanism is driven more by the portrayal of the drones in the Pakistani media, which paints them as a scourge targeting innocent civilians, than by the drones themselves. Few Pakistanis have actually visited the tribal areas or even know much about them. Until the United States and Pakistan come clean about the program, though, it is an image that will persist, worsening the frictions within Pakistan’s already divided society and between the United States and Pakistan.

That’s too bad, because in reality Pakistanis are deeply torn about the drones. For every anti-American rant they inspire-the recent meteoric rise of Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician, owes a great deal to his strong opposition to the drone strikes — there is also a recognition that these strikes from the sky have their purpose. At times, they have outright benefited the Pakistani state, as in the summer of 2009, when a drone attack killed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of a militant alliance in Waziristan who was suspected of masterminding former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s 2007 assassination — Pakistan’s Enemy No. 1, but a villain of less consequence to the United States.

Residents of the tribal areas are similarly conflicted. Many favor the drone strikes over the alternatives, such as military operations or less selective bombardments by Pakistani bombers and helicopter gunships. Better a few houses get vaporized than an entire village turned into refugees.Even the brother of the elder I brought to the Peshawar guesthouse said as much, allowing that “in our case, it might be faulty intelligence or mischief by someone” that had caused the strike that killed his brother. Regardless, he said, “I would always go for the drones.”

 

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