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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, known as UAVs or commonly as drones, used in the War on Terror occupy a mysterious and underrepresented place in American foreign policy discourse. Due to their covert nature, the use of drones are never fully explained or contextualized by U.S. media outlets or the United States government and military. It was domestic and not foreign policy that brought the discussion of drone strikes to the forefront of American public discourse when Rand Paul, a Republican U.S. Senator from Kentucky, conducted a twelve-hour long Senate filibuster in protest of the Obama administration’s ambiguity and secrecy concerning its drone program. The filibuster was also in protest of John Brennan’s nomination as C.I.A. director.

The debate within the United States has revolved around the concern regarding the unchecked executive power of the President to order drone strikes against American citizens on American soil. In stark contrast, the Pakistani public and media have been obsessed with the use of American drones in their tribal areas. In this research project I argue that the secrecy surrounding the drone program has significantly damaged its effectiveness and greatly increased anti-American sentiments among the Pakistani public. I argue that the expanded drone program under President Obama has been counterproductive when it comes to counter-insurgency strategy.

My research demonstrates that the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty is one of the most significant sources of anti-American sentiment among Pakistani public. By employing the constructivist framework I demonstrate that drones create a new discursive space that ostensibly dehumanizes its targets, but it also provides a powerful narrative to the communities victimized by the use of drones. My tentative conclusion is that counter-insurgency strategy that is meant to win ‘hearts and minds’ is significantly impeded by the use of drones because of the initial decision by the American government to not publicly acknowledge the use of drone as a legitimate counter-insurgency tactic.

The Short and Violent History of Drone Warfare

Drones first sprang onto the scene as another form of ‘unconventional warfare’ in 2002 under the Bush administration’s War against Terror. Its usage was expanded greatly under the Obama administration, starting in 2009. Though the first ever reported use of drones occurred in Yemen the Tribal Areas of Northern Pakistan was and still remains the primary target of drone strikes. According to research done by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the New America Foundation of every attack in the FATA area, their research demonstrates that the highest number of drone strikes occurred from 2008 to 2011.1 According to David Rohde: “Over the last three years the Obama administration has carried out at least 239 covert drone strikes, more than five times the 44 approved under George W. Bush. And after promising to make counterterrorism operations more transparent and rein in executive power, Obama has arguably done the opposite, maintaining secrecy and expanding presidential authority.” 2 The question then becomes, why has FATA become ground zero when it comes to the use of UAVs as a key counterinsurgency strategy?

Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA)

The formation of the five agencies—South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Kurram, Khyber and Malakand (FATA) were created as administrative units by the British colonial government as an attempt to distinguish the ‘tribal’ highland communities from the settled agricultural regions. For the British this was a strategic necessity to contain Russia and to define British India’s frontier against Afghanistan. The image of the Northern Areas as the ‘wild west’ of British India was reinforced by the ability of local tribes to raise lashkars (troops) often led by the prominent religious authority of the mullahs (clerics).

The lashkars were mobilized to enforce truces among fighting clans, collect fines, and punish perceived moral transgressions. The British authorities and many of the participants used the term jihad to describe these missions but the growing illegal arms trade, inter-clan rivalries, and the code of honor were often the motivations for raising the lashkars. In 1947, Pakistan stepped into the role played by the British. “The terms of the relationship between the Tribal Areas and the successor regimes to the British were as limited as the colonial relationship had always been with its northwestern frontier.”3 The administrative relationship resembled the British model of paying allowances to the maliks (Political leaders) and using political agents as the emissary of the Pakistani state.

The ‘semi-sovereign’ status of the FATA region became a haven for the Taliban fleeing Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion. During the first few years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan the Pakistani state often argued that it could not do much regarding the cross-border attacks by the Taliban launched from FATA because it did not have complete administrative control and because the region was so vast and rugged.

In December, 2007, under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud, several smaller Jihadi groups united to form the TTP (Pakistani Taliban) in FATA. The stated aim of TTP was to overthrow the Pakistani state and creat a truly Islamic system. After the emergence of the TTP as far as Pakistani government was concerned there were ‘good Taliban’ (Afghani) and ‘bad Taliban,’ the TTP. But as far as the United States was concerned there were only bad Taliban.

The Three Musketeers: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States – All for One?

There are certain strategic goals shared by the Karazi government in Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan. All three governments want to root out terrorism from the region and create a stable Afghanistan. But the three countries also have different national interests that create tensions in their alliance. Pakistan’s primary concern is to be in the best possible position to ensure a friendly Afghanistan once the U.S. makes an exit out of Afghanistan. This has resulted in a dual policy on the part of the Pakistanis; some might argue a contradictory one. On the one hand, Pakistan desires a stable Afghanistan, but on the other hand, it desperately desires a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul. This may or may not come from Karzai’s government, we have yet to see, as the United States military has not left Afghanistan yet. If, regrettably, the U.S. leaves and Afghanistan devolves into chaos, with the Taliban taking control and the Karzai government ousted, then Pakistan’s ISI and Army will have been right in ensuring a pliant regime in Afghanistan in the shape of the Afghan Taliban.

There is an obvious schism, then, between the latent Pakistani ambition to ensure a client state in Afghanistan (Taliban or not) and the U.S.’s desire to ensure a free, progressive and democratic Afghanistan built on a solid infrastructure, economy, and government. There is also a very specific cultural and ethnic issue at hand here. The Pashtun majority in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Pashtun minority (15% of Pakistan’s population4 ) share common cultural, ethnic, and linguistic ties that are notably apart from the rest of Pakistan, especially it’s Punjabi majority. Both the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban are mostly Pashtun. Pashtuns have dominated Pakistani institutions that deal with Afghanistan, like the ISI. Civil servants responsible for administrating Pakistan’s northwest frontier have often been Pashtuns. “Just as the backbone of the Taleban and their allies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is to be found among the Pathans, so any settlement of the conflict with the Taleban in both countries will have to be one which brings a majority of the Pathan population on board.”5

2 Rohde, David. “The Obama Doctrine How the President’s Drone War Is Backfiring.”Foreign Policy. Mar. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
3 Haroon, Sana, Frontier of Faith: Islam in the Indo-Afghan Borderland, (London: Hurst & Company)2007, p.178
4 CIA, “Pakistan,” The World Factbook.
5 Levin, Anatol, Pakistan A Hard Country (London: Allen Lane), 405-406

Hassan Masood

Hassan Masood is a Contracts professional with Tetra Tech International Development Services Energy Services group, where he currently implements the $60 million USAID-funded Sustainable Energy for Pakistan (SEP) project. Recipient of the 2013 Pi Sigma Alpha Political Science Honor Society Best Paper Award (undergraduate).

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