Thursday, 26 December 2013

Droning the future, Aitab Siddique

Droning the future, Aitab Siddique

 Military drones have proven their effectiveness for the US by undertaking intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan enabling the US to avoid placing American boots in the most dangerous areas. While different drone programmes have been in the making since the early 90s, in 1995, the Predator range became the first of these to become operational. 

During 2013 important technological advancements took place in the US: unmanned, ground-controlled F16 jet fighters have been successfully tested; the X-47B UCAS a super drone has been launch tested. The latter is completely pre-mission programmed so once it takes off, it undertakes the entire mission independently without any human control or intervention from the ground. The development of these super drones has completely changed the war equation in favour of the US.

The X-47Bs super drone’s military capabilities are much better than the fighter jets, with a range of 2100 nautical miles (NM) compared to 1740NM for F16s and only around 998NM for the RQ1 Predator (said to be operating around Pakistan’s tribal areas). Most importantly, these super drones can be refuelled mid-air which greatly increases their range; they can be launched from and land on a moving aircraft carrier ship.

The US will no longer will need allies willing to host its drones and constrained by diplomatic issues. As instruments of war go, the US has now developed vastly advanced drone weaponry that can avoid detection and carry out missions even when confronted with air defence systems based in the Pacific and other regions, far more technologically advanced than those the US faces in Pakistani and Afghan territory.

US military planners are using technology to minimise the loss of their military personnel making the war as robotic as possible. This illustrates the huge value the American government places on the lives of its soldiers and on an American life. The overall cost of the programme is around US$813 million; these super drones will be fully operational by 2020 and will enable the US to be prepared for its envisioned prolonged presence in Afghanistan and the borders of Pakistan’s tribal areas over the next 10 years.

Now the question many Pakistanis are asking is: are any areas of the country out of the drones’ range? Sadly, the answer is no. Since the appointment of Mullah Fazlullah as chief of the TTP and his deputy Khalid Haqqani – both residents of the settled KP areas – the situation has deteriorated. Their power base is built around Swat, Hangu, Tirah Valley and Swabi, areas situated deep in Pakistani territory, and now considered areas of interest for US drones. 

Indeed, a recent drone strike took place in the town of Hangu. Predictably, this resulted in mass protests, rallies and suspension of Nato supplies to Afghanistan. The evolving situation puts the Pakistani government in a very difficult position as the repeated drone attacks imply it is incapable of protecting its sovereignty.

Drone strikes are an important part of the pre-emptive strike policy devised by the Bush administration. On the whole, this policy has had disastrous consequences for the world. Iraq, a monumental mistake, is an outcome of this very policy. The policy has failed in Pakistan, Afghanistan and in Yemen. In all these countries countless innocent lives have been lost by drone attacks, although exact numbers are difficult to determine as the strikes usually take place in remote areas.

The situation is complicated by the US government’s resistance to releasing its own assessment of the impact of strikes: information to which it has access given that the Predator drones carry high definition cameras and part of their mission is to record pre as well as post-strike images. In order to conduct an informed discussion on the impact of drone policy, exact figures of drone strike casualties are urgently needed.

Meanwhile, Pakistani decision-makers need to address a number of issues. However, they must first realise that the new drone hardware soon to be available to US decision-makers suggests that the policy of drone warfare will continue for the foreseeable future. The US expects to maintain a presence in Afghanistan for another ten years or so and will seek to defend its troops with the best possible military hardware available. Given the facts on the ground and Pakistani impotence in the face of American military might, it would be prudent for Pakistanis to focus instead on the levers they can control. 

The first lever should be of reconciliation. The government should start an active reconciliation approach with the Taliban – make it a matter of public policy to announce that the Pakistani government is willing to meet them whenever and wherever they require and whichever splinter group of the Taliban they represent. 

Negotiation with all the groups will provide the necessary framework for a larger composite dialogue. Mullah Baradar carries a lot of respect among the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and could be a very useful interlocutor between the new TTP leadership and the Pakistani government. A megaphone approach should be used to make Pakistan’s masses aware that the government is serious about pursuing a useful dialogue.

The second lever is weapon control. The government needs to take concrete steps to stop the flow of illegal weaponry and explosives into Pakistan from across the border. It may be useful to consider fencing or other strict border controls to secure Pakistan’s boundaries. While the US has historically opposed border controls, this should now be discussed as part of the Pakistani government’s overall strategy to contain terrorism in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US.

The third lever relates to economic policies. The country desperately needs investment in development and growth, both of which have suffered grievously due to the dangerous law and order situation. First, the youth of the tribal areas should be given preferential loans, training and an opportunity to become economically active. The tribal areas suffer from a serious lack of development and basic infrastructure.

Infrastructure development projects currently earmarked for implementation should be awarded to local companies or to companies with 50 percent local ownership modelled on mutual societies thus making locals stakeholders in the projects. 

Implementing such programmes will not only enable the government to address the root causes of issues that lead to unrest but also open up opportunities for people currently without much hope. It will provide an alternative for people trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence who join radical groups due to the lack of other available options.

The complicated issues of drone strikes, Talibanisation and growing discontent are challenging and cannot be easily resolved. However, history teaches us that we need to give peace a chance.

The international community should help Pakistan and promote the idea of giving peaceful negotiation a chance. Peace can never be won by using drones or terrorist acts; it can only be gained by dialogue. 

The writer is a London based independent political analyst. Email: 

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