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Democracy and Drones in Pakistan

Pakistan recently completed the first peaceful democratic transition of power in its 65-year history. This shift to a new leadership has unearthed a long-brewing discussion of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Specifically, the just-elected administration provided a catalyst for passionate opposition to the attacks. Voices from all across the country – led by the new Prime Minister – are protesting the United States’ use of drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs) in Pakistan, and for several reasons.

Since it began deploying drones, the United States has orchestrated hundreds of strikes in Pakistan that have resulted in an estimated 474-881 civilian casualties as of September 2012. Just one civilian death can be detrimental to a family or community; hundreds of deaths easily take an enormous toll on the entire nation. Not to mention the myriad other impacts of a drone strike on civilian families – loss of a home and other property, constant fear, stigmatization, etc. Not surprisingly the rising number of drone casualties has generated significant public disdain for the constant presence of foreign UAV’s in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The nation’s leadership is also visibly concerned with the questionable legality of the drone strikes. Specifically, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has argued that the drones violate international law and Pakistan’s sovereignty. Sharif said, “This daily business of drones has to stop immediately…Other countries must respect our sovereignty and address our concerns.” The Peshawar High Court affirmed their illegality, claiming that drone strikes are considered war crimes.

Given only the above reasons of questionable legality and long-lasting negative consequences for the nation, the United States should reconsider its current drone war in Pakistan. However, the recent democratic elections in Pakistan provide an even larger impetus for reevaluation and diplomatic engagement on drones with Pakistanis. Substantial public opposition to U.S. drone strikes was a key factor in the 2013 elections. Officials’ calls to end the strikes are consistently met with literal cheers and overwhelming approval from Pakistanis. One of Sharif’s main campaign promises was to put an end to the drone strikes, and his victory in the elections shows that his position enjoys widespread public support. Additionally, two parties that won the most votes in the election – PML-N and the PTI – both openly condemn US drone strikes.

It is abundantly clear that Prime Minister Sharif and the rest of his administration practically have a mandate from the people to demand the end US drone attacks. The drone issue is therefore an opportunity for us to demonstrate our support for Pakistan’s democracy. To ignore the most important demand of the Pakistani people and the government they have elected would be to turn our back on the legitimacy of Pakistan’s first successful democratic transition of power. Moreover, it would be hypocritical of the United States to refrain from working with a nation that is moving towards the democratic ideals that we stand for.

Refusing to engage with Sharif on this issue may also have significant consequences. While Imran Khan, head of Pakistan’s PTI party, has said that he is not in favor of shooting the drones down, other Pakistani officials have called for precisely that, military action against US strikes. Other Pakistani leaders suggest going straight to the United Nations and bypassing the US. And, continuation of the status quo could substantially damage America’s relationship with Pakistan, a Pakistani spokesman said, a dangerous scenario with the US needing Pakistani cooperation on a number of other pressing issues from Afghanistan to nuclear proliferation.

Rather than provoking a fight with Pakistan’s government and undermining its credibility with its people, the United States should work towards a compromise with Pakistani officials. Such a compromise could entail a reduction in the number of drone strikes as well as increased regulation and transparency. Directly engaging with Pakistanis is the best solution to a complex problem, and one that is in line with the democratic values that the United States so fervently champions.


Photo: Fg Off Owen Cheverton/MOD [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

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