Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is supposed to be sworn into office this Wednesday, sent signals to the Taliban that initial conversations would supposedly take place soon. But before he should have been able to prove his ability to negotiate peace with the Islamists, the process had already ended again. The designated head of state protested, as bound by duty, after a U.S. drone killed the representative of the Pakistani Taliban, Waliur Rehman, in North Waziristan. He called the mission a violation of sovereignty and indicated that the drone program is a violation of international law and the U.N. charter. But immediately after the drone attack, the Taliban declared it did not want to sit at a table with this government.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s use of unmanned aircraft in the fight against suspected terrorists in Pakistan’s border area with Afghanistan is unparalleled in any other country. Initiated by his predecessor George W. Bush, the president considerably expanded the CIA-run program — and has ordered around six times as many attacks. For the already miserable image of the U.S. in the Muslim nation, the targeted kills are a catastrophe. The large majority of Pakistanis despise the joystick-controlled killer machines. There is little debate about which part of the extremist threat Pakistan faces is its own fault: The rage against the American drones is usefully well-suited for the Pakistani decision makers to distract from their own failures.
Many analysts agree that Pakistan’s government and military adhere to the tradition of a Pakistani double game when it comes to the topic of drones. Islamabad exhibits “schizophrenic” characteristics in this matter, as the International Crisis Group decided in a study. On the one hand, the elite in the country regularly castigate the attacks, but the establishment tacitly tolerates or promotes the program. “As long as the Pakistani military doesn’t rein in the Taliban, drones remain the only option,” says independent Pakistani security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.*
To be sure, President Obama recently announced that the deployment of drones will be subject to stricter rules. The so-called signature strikes, in which suspects are attacked based on their movement profile, are supposed to stop, and the number of missions overall is to be reduced. But the targeted attack against Taliban deputy Rehman shows that Obama is still relying on the controversial drones — even before the new Pakistani officials have assumed their duties. Security expert Siddiqa assumes that Sharif, too, in spite of contradictory rhetoric, doesn’t wish for a complete stoppage of the U.S. missions.
Pakistan’s Divided Rhetoric
The previous head of government again and again vociferously protested against the drones in order to pacify the people. But ex-Premier Yousaf Raza Gillani, as well as the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, did anything but reject the program — call logs show that. Musharraf acknowledged in an interview with CNN during his time as head of state that U.S. deployments were approved if “there was no time for our own ... military to act,” and as the published diplomatic dispatches from WikiLeaks revealed, while head of state, Asif Ali Zardari said in conversation with an American delegation that the Pakistani government wanted to deploy the drones themselves “so that we cannot be criticized by the media or anyone else.” According to that, Pakistan’s government had no reservation about the possible violation of international law or breach of sovereignty, but instead wanted to gain control over the program. To be sure, Sharif will avoid giving his approval to U.S. drones at public appearances or placing it on the record behind closed doors, analyst Siddiqa is certain. But he [Sharif], too, knows no means other than to tolerate the missions over Pakistani territory.
According to statistics from the New America Foundation, with the attack on the Pakistani Taliban deputy, the U.S. has undertaken exactly 356 drone attacks in Pakistan since the beginning of the program in 2004. In the process, between 2,014 and 3,343 people have lost their lives, including up to 307 civilians and up to 2,706 militants. Human rights groups speak of considerably more dead civilians, but there are no exact figures because hardly any reliable information about the attacks is known. The statistics are based on media reports from a region that is inaccessible to independent observers.
For people in the tribal areas, the presence of the drones that circle over the area of operation for hours is an immense psychological pressure. “The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death,” American journalist David Rohde wrote about the unmanned aircraft that he often got to see and hear during his time as a prisoner of the Taliban.
*Editor’s Note: This quote, while accurately translated, could not be verified