Droning against the Wind

By M Saeed Khalid for The International News.

It makes sense that the movie Unmanned: America’s drone war, should have a preview for a select audience of Islamabad even before it premiers in the US on October 30. After all, we have been in the frontline of the war on terror since 9/11.  

As the US bombed and occupied Afghanistan, remnants of Al-Qaeda and some Afghan Taliban scurried into Pakistan’s tribal areas. On Pakistan’s refusal to US hot pursuit or boots on the ground, drone warfare gradually became the preferred mode of action – with Pakistan’s forced connivance.

It is not so much the use of drone surveillance or occasional use against terrorist hideouts but the systematic recourse to drone attacks by the US, resulting in the death of suspected terror suspects while killing hundreds of innocent civilians including women and children, that has come to provoke widespread indignation. 

Co-produced by Robert Greenwald and Jemima Khan, the film on the drone war sends a powerful message about the ultimate futility of this killer technology so dear to the American defence establishment and President Obama. The filmmakers try to prove that doling out $20 billion to the war industry so that the US has the means to conduct a smart war sans body bags is not a viable alternative to conventional war because of moral and legal issues.

Jemima, billed as co-host of the show, was absent from the event. A video conference by her on the occasion too did not materialise. This obviously dimmed the impact of the launch. Imran Khan made an appearance and contested Nawaz Sharif’s view that drone strikes did not constitute war crimes. 

It appears that the idea of this film is to mobilise popular support in the US to press the point that this colossal project in terms of cost borne by the taxpayer is immoral, illegal and counterproductive. If the producers and promoters of the film succeed, Obama and his drone-brigade will find themselves in a tight spot. 

Indeed, there is now increasing pressure on the US against its one-way war. Two critical reports from the UN, a passionate appeal from Malala and the official demarche from Nawaz Sharif add impetus to the growing opposition in the US and elsewhere to the illegal and cruel nature of drone war. There have been suggestions that unmanned drone attacks violating the sovereignty of other states resulting in deaths of civilians should be considered war crimes.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has reasons to feel vindicated that despite President Obama’s faith in drones, the wind is blowing against this mode of warfare. The Nobel laureate may find it harder in the period ahead to defend drone attacks with a straight face. After Guantanamo, drones are another sore point with all those who believe that Obama has let them down and resorted to brutal means defying the international legal system. 

Coming to the overall results of the prime minister’s visit to Washington, sceptics may question the wisdom behind Mian Sahib’s sojourn to the US when he already knew the answers he was going to receive. They may also wonder why the prime minister spent days in the US capital meeting members of the administration when he was going to have a tete-a-tete with President Obama. Couldn’t he travel to Chicago, Los Angeles or Houston for a day to meet the Pakistani community and make a small dent in the ceaseless efforts of anti-Pakistan lobbyists? 

So why did Nawaz Sharif have to travel a whole week and miss home comforts – and yes, home food – for meagre results? It seems that receiving a popular mandate in Pakistan is insufficient; you need a supplementary mandate from the global power centre in Washington DC. Mian Sahib is not to blame though because this tradition was set by the country’s founding fathers. 

Soon after gaining independence, our leaders sent SOS signals to Washington, the only cash cow around to bail out the new republic. The Americans pushed our request to the back burner, president Truman extended an invitation to Nehru to visit the US. This was like rubbing salt in the wounds and Liaquat Ali Khan, brought up in the intricate methods of riasati siasat contrived a way of forcing Truman not to take Pakistan so lightly. An invitation from Moscow was provoked only to receive another from Washington. 

Liaquat did not visit Moscow but travelled to Washington in 1950 and laid the foundation of close cooperation with America against the red peril. The various stages of our tight embrace with the US are well-documented. Briefly, all Pakistani leaders and military rulers have made the ritualistic journey to the White House to receive political, military and financial support.

Nawaz’s visit was not designed to score any major success but to ‘renew’ the lease agreement – which was achieved. Declaratory ambitions of trade rather than aid or stopping drone attacks met a fate foretold. Pity the soft-speaking, ever-smiling diplomatic representatives who are called upon to reduce into agreed text a relationship as sinuous as that between Pakistan and the US. 

The joint statement by President Obama and Prime Minister Sharif is practically a road map with elaborate signposts about what can be expected in the evolution of Pak-US ties during the three remaining years of the Obama presidency.

Tailpiece: A UN report that should have cheered us has gone unheralded. Pakistan is ahead of not only India and Bangladesh but two-thirds of humanity in the World Index of Happiness. Why is the national media mum over this heartening piece of news?

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