Sunday January 6, 2013
Talk of war drones on and on
Behind The Headlines
By Bunn Nagara
In the “undeclared war” in Pakistan, truth is often the first and subsequent casualty.
THROUGH the fog of war, sometimes the truth from the battlefront actually gets reported as news, despite official efforts to fudge the facts.
At other times, inconvenient truths are neatly obscured, concealed or handily spun away. Then there are times when seeming contradictions expose larger truths.
That happened on Thursday when rural community leader Maulvi Nazir Wazir was assassinated along with others in a US drone attack in South Waziristan, north-western Pakistan.
From the very outset, several issues were clear enough.
First, the killing was no accident and Maulvi was not an unintended victim or “collateral damage” in the US military operation in Pakistan. The killings were deliberate and targeted.
US forces had on several occasions tried but failed to kill Maulvi in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He had held dual citizenship and spent time on both sides of the border.
Second, Pakistani security officials were incensed by the killings. Maulvi was no hardline Taliban militant but someone they could deal with.
Indeed, there was an unwritten agreement between Maulvi and Islamabad in which they would leave him alone and he would not try to destabilise Pakistan.
Third, Maulvi had in effect served as a buffer between Pakistan and the hardline Taliban like Hakimullah Mehsud’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
But apparently such considerations and distinctions had been too subtle for hardliners in Washington.
US operatives may say that Maulvi had been “close to the militant Haqqani network”. But such is the spread and scope of Afghanistan’s Haqqani network that anyone could be implicated with guilt by association.
Then there is the issue of ideology. Advocates of US military assassination campaigns cite the shared ideology between Maulvi’s mujahideen, the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
But actually there is no real ideology that is shared. Each group has its own interpretation of Islamic law and its application, so what they share is essentially a rejection of foreign military occupation and intervention.
And that may be what irritates US strategic planners most. The militants’ greatest danger to foreign interventionists is their inclination to take up armed resistance against foreign intervention.
That is what US policymakers should know most about, even if they appear not to. Various mujahideen groups had been trained, armed, supplied and paid by Washington to subvert the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the Cold War.
The only value these groups had to Washington then was their common rejection of foreign (then Soviet) military occupation of their country. That is still their most distinctive feature today.
Now consider the foreign news coverage of Maulvi’s reported killing.
CNN reported that a “top Taliban leader” had been killed in a US drone attack in Pakistan. It added that more than 12 others had also been killed.
Aljazeera English reported that a “senior tribal leader” had been killed in the attack, along with five others.
Apparently, Maulvi’s “Taliban” identity and association was in some doubt for Aljazeera. The total number of casualties in the drone strike also varied, depending on the local source cited.
The further away from the scene, the fuzzier the details and the distinctions become. Thus in Washington, both media and government see little or no difference between Maulvi and the Taliban mainstream.
In both Pakistan and Afghanistan, the indiscriminate killings that come with US drone attacks are highly unpopular and deeply disturbing. But as Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation, who is also CNN’s national security analyst, reported last September that Obama administration officials “assert that the civilian casualty rate is now zero”.
How can any US official ever know? Drones are small robotic aircraft carrying missiles controlled by technicians far away, working for either the US military or the CIA.
And then there is the fact about militant groups which makes it so convenient to deny that drones are killing civilians: militants do not wear uniforms and are not part of any country’s armed forces.
That means they are technically “civilians” themselves. That also means any civilian group or individual may be labelled as militants without proof that they are not.
Only local communities know that old men, women and children number among the casualty count of civilians that Washington denies. But these communities are far enough away from Capitol Hill and the White House not to be a problem.
And then, after Maulvi’s death seemed to have become yesterday’s news, more news came to the effect that the Pentagon could not confirm he had died. The Taliban also reportedly did not confirm his death.
On Friday, a Pentagon spokesman in a classic misstatement said that if Maulvi had died, both the US and Pakistan had reason to rejoice.
Could the real Maulvi Nazir Wazir have cheated death by drones yet again? Whatever his fate, some things are already confirmed in a general decline for foreign military occupation and intervention in the “AfPak theatre.”
US-Pakistan relations are on the decline. The moderate mujahideen are on the retreat and Taliban hardliners are on a rebound, thanks to Obama’s drone “surge”.
The result is more instability and more opportunities for extremists in Islamabad and beyond, with foreign (mainly Western) military occupiers earning a worsening image.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda may not be able to believe their luck.
They could never have imagined they would achieve as much, let alone the occupiers themselves doing so much more.