Drone Politics in Pakistan

Drone Politics in Pakistan

Protests in Pakistan led by politician Imran Khan show how U.S. drone strikes are being exploited in the run-up to the general election, says expert Joshua Foust.

October 12, 2012 9:09 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Imran Khan, a former cricket star-turned-politician, led a two-day march last weekend that focused new attention on U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. For Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, the march demonstrates how Khan, who is running for prime minister as head of the party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), is exploiting public anger over U.S. drone strikes. Foust questions Khan’s silence on the subject of the Pakistani Taliban, especially in light of Tuesday’s shooting of teen activist Malala Yousufzai. "It’s important to remember that the Taliban were rampaging in Pakistan before there were drones," he says. As far as U.S.-Pakistan relations on terrorism, he says the relationship needs to be renegotiated to "shift to a more collaborative system, where the U.S. actively engages in target selection and ultimately target neutralization with the Pakistani government."

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Khan has been a vocal critic of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Would you agree with his assessment that drones strikes have been "so unproductive"?

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament


I would only agree in a partial sense: Drones in Pakistan are enormously controversial. Part of that actually stems from the efforts of people like Imran Khan, who [have campaigned actively to] make them unpopular. However, drones have actually been very productive in terms of [destroying] certain terrorist networks and killing terrorist leaders. So, in a broad sense, they’re both productive and unproductive. But as a politician who’s [derived] a lot of his popularity from his opposition to drones, he’s also very likely to say that as well.

Does Khan offer a better solution to wiping out militants?

Short answer: no. Count how often he mentions the Taliban. It’s rare. That’s a big problem.

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According to some reports, turnout at the final rally was well below the anticipated number. Do you think this march succeeded in achieving its goals? Or was it more a piece of political theater to bolster Khan’s candidacy?

It was supposed to be political theater from the beginning. Since the protest kind of fizzled out and no one really wound up caring that the military blocked his attempt to get into south Waziristan, the PTI activists have since shifted their tack to saying that the fact that we’re even talking about the march means it was a success, because it raised visibility of drone strikes. But their original goal wasn’t to raise visibility. Within Pakistan, drone strikes are already a visible issue. They’re part of the daily political churn of the country. What they were hoping that by including Code Pink [the U.S.-based anti-war group] in the march they would raise awareness in the West. That didn’t happen.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament


From the other side of it, I’m not really sure how public opinion against drones in Pakistan could be galvanized any more than it already is. Last year, the Raymond Davis affair saw hundreds of thousands of people angrily rampaging through the streets when Davis was not summarily executed as soon as he was arrested. And that was tied up mostly in public anger over the drone strikes. It’s not like people can get all that much angrier about it.

[Khan is] positioning himself as a very classic demagogue trying to rise up through the ranks. [But] despite all of this clever positioning, you don’t really get a sense of how he’d run the country. He just says Pakistan needs to be for Pakistanis. And that’s all very true, but the terms under which that happens, and the terms under which Pakistanis govern their own state matters a tremendous amount. I have yet to hear him [articulate his] grand vision for Pakistan.

Do you think it’s significant that they failed to reach South Waziristan?

I would’ve been surprised if they had been allowed into South Waziristan. As much as the Pakistani government has a certain interest in ginning up this nationalist outrage against drones, ultimately it would’ve been a public relations disaster [to let them into South Waziristan], because the Taliban had toyed with supporting Khan. Some [Taliban] elements [even] supported the march. But, the Taliban [is] so hated in Waziristan that the PTI marchers could have run into people who supported drones, which would have completely ruined their whole modus operandi. They [also] could have been easily attacked by the Taliban.

Do you think Khan can ultimately translate his popularity into parliamentary seats?

The fact that Khan criticizes the weapons trying to defeat the Taliban but declines to actually condemn the Taliban is, to me, unjustifiable.

Khan is being extraordinarily irresponsible in how he’s tried to appeal to certain demographics but supported the Taliban while ratcheting up his anti-Americanism. I fail to see how that does anything to help Pakistan, especially when you hear of a fourteen-year-old girl [Malala Yousufzai] getting shot in the head by the Taliban. The fact that he criticizes the weapons trying to defeat the Taliban and declines to condemn the Taliban is, to me, just unjustifiable.

It’s important to remember that the Taliban were rampaging in Pakistan before there were drones. And this girl that was shot wasn’t piloting a drone. She was just demanding the right to go to school. So there is something disingenuous about what Khan is doing, but he is very good at drawing a crowd. And he is going to get a decent number of seats in the parliament. He’ll be part of whatever ruling coalition eventually emerges.

Why doesn’t Khan address the atrocities committed by the Taliban, and the Pakistani army, both of which have claimed more lives than those kill by drone attacks?

If you’re an ardent Pakistani nationalist, it’s easy to blame other countries for every bad thing happening inside your own country. The United States does it too – with China. We have a tendency to blame our economic problems on China instead of on the bad decisions our leadership has made over the last thirty years. The same thing applies to Pakistan. Their leadership has made really bad decisions over the last several decades, and instead of grappling with that, they’ve decided to [vilify] the United States.

What do you think we can expect from the upcoming elections?

Khan has an uphill battle ahead of him. I hesitate to predict too much about Pakistani politics just because that never turns out well. The PPP is President Zardari’s party, formerly the party of Benazir Bhutto. Nawaz Sharif runs the other major parties in Pakistan. They still have really substantial followings, and I’d be very surprised if Imran Khan is able to sweep the election, or even gain a majority that he would need to become the uncontested prime minister. There’s going to be some sort of bargaining process, some sort of behind-the-scenes wrangling for who ends up in charge. If [Khan] does become PM, it’s going to come at a cost. He’s going to have to compromise on some things. I don’t know what those things are yet, but it’s not going to be the clean sweep he’s predicted.

Do you see this latest wave of anti-drone sentiment affecting U.S.-Pakistani relations, which hit a nadir a few months ago?

[U.S.-Pakistani relations] probably won’t get as bad as they were when Pakistan closed off NATO supply lines. What I find remarkable about the current crop of officials who are associated with President Zardari is [how] their complaints of U.S. policy have [shifted]. It’s no longer complaints about drone strikes or trying to say that all drone strikes are illegal [per se], which used to be the line you would hear from a lot of them. Instead it’s become the U.S. doesn’t collaborate enough with us, or the U.S. doesn’t spend enough time reconciling its target lists with Pakistan’s target list. Or even demanding that they be put in charge of certain kinds of drone operations. I don’t want to speak for all Pakistani officials, but there’s a growing sense that those drones really do serve concrete security purpose, and [many] officials want them to continue.

The U.S. and Pakistan need to renegotiate the terms of their relationship. We’re operating under constraints that were designed eight years ago, when Pakistan was run by a military dictatorship.

Ultimately though, the U.S. and Pakistan need to renegotiate the terms of their relationship. We’re operating under constraints that were designed eight years ago, when Pakistan was run by a military dictatorship and when we had a different administration in power here in the U.S., and in a lot of ways those existing frameworks are not compatible with current conditions. The mood in both countries has shifted substantially as well, primarily on the Pakistani side with this deep-seated opposition to drone strikes that has cropped up.

So there is probably going to be some sort of change in the relationship. With any luck, meaning if all the negotiators involved are smart enough to do this, there’s going to be a shift to a more collaborative system, where the U.S. actively engages in target selection and ultimately target neutralization with the Pakistani government. The big question is going to be whether the Pakistani government itself is willing to play ball, and ultimately that is going to be determined to a large degree by who winds up as the next prime minister.


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