If it fails to do anything else, the proposed Peace March to Waziristan on 6-7 October, under the leadership of Imran Khan, Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, has at least achieved this: it has reignited global debate about the CIA drone program.
In my mind, there is no doubt that drones cannot help solve, or even reduce, extremism and militancy. I first wrote about this in January in a blog post entitled “Fire from the Sky“, and don’t have any reason to change my mind.
According to statistics published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been more than 330 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2008 in which more than 2,400 people have been killed. During this time, extremism and militancy have increased, our society has become more polarised and hatred & intolerance have taken root. Rather than helping combat extremism, a recently published report, “Living Under Drones“, based on research conducted by the law schools of Stanford & New York Universities, concluded that drones have likely contributed to increased radicalisation and “have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks“.
This research has added weight to other studies, including one from the Columbia Law School called “The Civilian Impact of Drone Strikes” in showing how drones are not only illegal and lead to civilian deaths, which is bad enough, but they also cause long-lasting psychological, social and economic impact on the people of Waziristan. This is not new information. I first learnt about it from reading an op-ed in the Daily Times (link to blog site) back in May by an independent researcher and activist, Usama Khilji. More recently, a BBC journalist, Ahmed Wali Mujeeb, has written about his firsthand experiences in Miranshah and the Orakzai tribal region.
From all of this research, two things have been clearly established:
One, that drone attacks kill civilians. It is possible that as low as less than two percent of people who die in these attacks are actually high-value terrorist targets. Even if that is an exaggeration (and the lack of transparency around this area means that we may never know the facts) what is blatantly obvious is that US government claims of “very few” civilian casualties can only be made with a straight face because of the definition of combatants that they use.
Second, that the constant presence of drones overhead has had significant psychological and social consequences on an entire population, who are suffering from anticipatory anxiety, post traumatic stress, insomnia, loss of appetite and a myriad of other mental disorders. This in an environment where mental illness cannot be effectively treated and is not even well understood. Add to this, a damaged economy, rampant inflation and difficulties in travel and transportation of goods and you’ve got an entire society that has been completely destroyed.
Of course, drones are not the root of the problem.
The fundamental issue, which needs urgent and decisive action, is that a relatively small number of hardcore militants belonging to the Taliban and other radical organisations have made Waziristan a staging area from where they launch attacks on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. There is no disputing that these brutal gangs consist of criminals and barbarians who have terrorised large populations across the region and wreaked havoc in our country are the real problem. They are reprehensible murderers who have killed thousands of innocent men, women and children in the name of Islam, which is a religion of peace and tolerance.
But drones will not solve this problem. They have failed for the last eight years and will continue to fail for the next eight years and more. And the price is being paid by civilians who live in the tribal areas, trapped between the militants and the military, with drones circling overhead. We cannot simply ignore this. And that is why the Peace March is so important.
The objectives of the Peace March, as Imran has explained, is twofold: (a) to draw global public and media attention to how harmful and counter-productive the drones program is; and (b) to convey to the innocent civilians of Waziristan, whose lives have been destroyed and who live in a constant state of fear due to the presence of militants in their midst and drones in the skies above, that they are not alone.
Of course the Peace March will not, on its own, miraculously eliminate extremism and intolerance. Of course it will not suddenly, as if by magic, bring peace to Waziristan. And no, it will not stop drone strikes, either. But it WILL draw vital attention to the harm that drones do and how counter-productive they are in the struggle against radicalisation and hatred.
There are some people out there who are deliberately portraying the Peace March as a meeting with terrorists, some kind of peace negotiation with the Taliban. My belief is that these are just attempts to discredit the March due to political motivation, as they feel threatened by the popularity that Imran could gain as a brave leader who has the courage to back up his convictions with action. In doing so, these people are insulting the memories of the innocents who have perished in drone attacks, whose families have suffered physical, mental and financial pain and have not had anyone go to them to say we’re sorry, we share your grief.
The fact is, the delegates of the Peace March will not be meeting militants. The tribal elders who will welcome them are NOT terrorists. They are respectable, honourable men, the entire fabric of whose society has come crashing down around their ears. Instead of support and help to combat the militants who made their towns terrorist strongholds, they have had to put up with missiles raining down on their homes and watching their children grow up with constant fear in their eyes, jumping at every sudden sound and crying themselves to sleep every night. The purpose of the Peace March is to meet with these people and to let their voices be heard.
So, when I hear people ask whether the Peace March will end drone strikes, will it bring peace to Waziristan, why aren’t you protesting at the US embassy, why don’t you go to North Waziristan instead, why not blame the army, etc. etc., I know this: all of these criticisms are just eyewash. They are hollow arguments being made by individuals who lack the maturity to accept that, while Imran Khan’s Peace March is largely symbolic, it is critical, nevertheless, to show how counterproductive drones are against extremism.
At the end of the day, the price that people of Waziristan are paying for the last eight years in terms of lives lost, mental anguish, economic hardship and the collapse of their social structures, is not worth paying, even if it does result in the death of 73 terrorists.