US drone strikes, which were temporarily suspended following the Nato attack on the Salala check-post, have now resumed. This, in itself, is not as surprising as the lack of comment from the government and the army. The very same ISPR, that couldn’t stop issuing press releases and making television appearances following the November incident, and that proudly announced the vacation of Shamsi airbase, are conspicuous only by their absence from the media.
Grounded in Legal Uncertainty
Many global organisations, including Human Rights Watch, question the legality of the use of drones in Pakistan and have asked the US government to transfer ownership of the drone programme from the CIA to the military and explain the legal rationale for what it terms “targeted killings”. Currently, the entire programme is run by the CIA as a classified activity, which means that the US government does not even officially admit to actually being responsible for drone strikes.
James Ross, Legal and Policy Director at Human Rights Watch said: “CIA drone strikes have become an almost daily occurrence around the world, but little is known about who is killed and under what circumstances. So long as the US resists public accountability for CIA drone strikes, the agency should not be conducting targeted killings.”
Whether or not these attacks are legal depends on interpretation of international law, and on the context in which they take place. International conventions permit attacks on military targets in times of war, only when disproportionate civilian casualties do not occur. Where the situation is not one of declared war, the use of lethal force is only permitted when absolutely necessary to save lives. Attacks on individuals as a result of their having broken the law in the past are not allowed and can only take place if an arrest is not possible and there is an imminent threat to human life. There is also the question of the fundamental right of every individual to be considered innocent of all alleged crimes until proven guilty in a court of law.
In a letter to President Obama written on December 16th, 2011, Human Rights Watch states:
“The US government should clarify fully and publicly its legal rationale for conducting targeted killings and the legal limits on such strikes. Your administration has yet to explain clearly where it draws the line between lawful and unlawful targeted killings. The government should also explain why it believes that its attacks are in conformity with international law and make public information, including video footage, on how particular attacks comply with that standard. To ensure compliance with international law, the United States should conduct investigations of targeted killings where there is credible evidence of wrongdoing, provide compensation to all victims of illegal strikes, and discipline or prosecute as appropriate those responsible for conducting or ordering unlawful attacks.”
Clearly, there are many unanswered questions around the legitimacy of drone strikes. So much so, that even the independent 9/11 commission in its 2004 report asked for the responsibility for all military operations, including covert and clandestine ones, should be handed over to the Pentagon. Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence has called for military control over the drone programme stating that is not sustainable. “If something has been going for a long period of time,” he said, “somebody else ought to do it, not intelligence agencies.”
Although senior officials in the Obama administration have made some attempts to claim that attacks on anti-US militants are legal, they have not addressed the question of where the boundary lies between legal and illegal operations. What the US is doing is setting a dangerous precedent that could be abused by oppressive regimes to target dissidents and political opponents simply by labeling them terrorists or militants. How would the US and the international community then have the moral authority to oppose or criticise such actions? They are actually undermining international conventions that have been set up over the last few decades, and the world remains a silent observer.
After the Nato attack
The public stance taken by the military after the Nato strike at the Salala check-post was one of defiance, outrage and national pride, ultimately leading to the Shamsi airbase being vacated by US forces, making it unavailable as the stage of drone attacks. But what does it really mean? The events since January 10th have clearly shown that withdrawing from one airbase in Pakistan has not impacted the CIA’s ability to carry out drone strikes. Although, it is fairly certain that US Predator and Reaper drones have operated from Shamsi base, which was technically leased to the UAE to allow the Pakistan army to deny US presence, for many years, now that large transport aircraft have carried away all US military hardware from there, the US still has access to at least five other military facilities in the country.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has, in a report published on December 15th, 2011, quoted a source with extensive knowledge of US-Pakistan military intelligence cooperation the US has access to several facilities, including Shahbaz base in Jacobabad, which was where drones were originally based and could still support drone operations, and Chaklala base near Islamabad, which has been used for logistics and troop movements since 2005. Other locations that have been made available to the US military in the past, and could still continue to be available, are bases at Quetta, Tarbela and Peshawar. The Bureau claims that vacating Shamsi base was only to pacify the public and the real intent is to enter into a new agreement that would allow drone strikes to continue, but only based on Pakistani intelligence gathering and with the knowledge and approval of the Pakistan military high command.
When asked about the withdrawal from Shamsi base, a senior spokesman for the Pentagon, Lt. Col. James Gregory, said:
“It is important to add that the United States and Pakistan have had a long and complicated relationship, but even as we have differed on a number of important issues, our cooperation in the future remains vital to dealing with the common threats we face from terrorism.”
Behind the Scenes, it’s Teamwork
Even after the Nato attack, what intrigued me was that the cessation of drone attacks was not put forward by the government as a condition to resumption of supply routes. Instead, joint decision making and advance information appeared to be a key demand. It should not have been surprising, in hindsight, bearing in mind the Wikileaks disclosure that General Kayani had asked for continuous Predator coverage of South Waziristan. Even if we were to believe that the coverage being requested was purely for surveillance, it cannot be denied that several air corridors have been made available to the CIA drone programme, with the approval (and perhaps even at the request) of Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership.
More recently, this partnership has been clearly made public. On January 22nd this year, Reuters published an exclusive claiming information from a senior Pakistani security source based in the conflict zone, that drone strikes on January 10th and 12th, 2012 were joint operations, which demonstrate that US-Pakistan intelligence sharing is still very much alive and kicking.
The January 10th strike was the first in about eight weeks, and the Reuters source has reportedly disclosed that its target was one of the key remaining Al-Qaeda leaders by the name of Aslam Awan, also known as Abdullah Khorasani, a Pakistani national and resident of Abbottabad, who was targeted in a compound near Miranshah. It is for the first time that information has been made public about how Pakistani intelligence cooperation helps the CIA target high-value militants, with focus on Al-Qaeda.
“The source, who says he runs a network of spotters primarily in North and South Waziristan, described for the first time how U.S.-Pakistani cooperation on strikes works, with his Pakistani agents keeping close tabs on suspected militants and building a pattern of their movements and associations.
‘We run a network of human intelligence sources,’ he said. ‘Separately, we monitor their cell and satellite phones.
‘Thirdly, we run joint monitoring operations with our U.S. and UK friends,’ he added, noting that cooperation with British intelligence was also extensive.
Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officers, using their own sources, hash out a joint ‘priority of targets lists’ in regular face-to-face meetings, he said.
Once a target is identified and ‘marked’, his network coordinates are shared with drone operators on the U.S. side. He said the United States bases drones outside Kabul, likely at Bagram airfield about 25 miles (40 km) north of the capital.
From spotting to firing a missile ‘hardly takes about two to three hours,’ he said.”
Whatever the rhetoric about drone strikes may be, it is clear that both the civilian and the military leadership in Pakistan approve of the drone programme and may even have positively encouraged it. It is also fairly clear that both have been less than truthful in their statements to the Pakistani public and may even have fed outright lies to the media and perhaps even parliament.
The Way Forward
An end to drone attacks is unlikely in the near future, but their frequency is likely to reduce. The US is unlikely to take any significant steps to articulate the legal case defending the legitimacy of the programme, and it will probably continue to be a classified activity under the control of the CIA. Meanwhile, innocent civilians will continue to die and fundamental rights of Pakistani citizens will continue to be blatantly ignored, just as they were during the Raymond Davis affair and many times before and since.
The global community will continue to ignore these violations of international conventions, and the voices of organisations such as Reprieve and Human Rights Watch will be continue to be too weak to be heard. Pakistan’s leadership, both those in khaki wardi and those in starched white shalwar kameez, will condemn these strikes in public, while quietly supporting the programme, just as they have done since President Obama took office in 2009.
In other words, nothing is likely to change.