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Hichem Karoui: Terrorism, drones and ethics
May 26, 2013
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The run-up to Pakistan’s recent elections had been marred by violence across the country, with the Pakistani Taliban claiming responsibility for several bomb attacks on secular political party targets.

On May 20, Pakistan’s incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif threw his support behind peace talks with the country’s Taliban insurgents, risking the disapproval of the powerful army officials. He declared it would be a top priority for his new government. “If Taliban have offered us an option to have dialogue, then we should take it seriously,” Sharif said while addressing his party’s newly elected parliamentarians in the eastern city of Lahore.

Three days later, on May 23, 2013, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP or “Pakistani Taliban”) claimed responsibility for an explosion that killed 11 security personnel and two civilians in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province. In February, TTP has signalled its willingness to enter peace talks with the government, though. Yet, it also stepped up attacks against Sharif’s rival Pakistan People’s Party and its main allies, drastically curtailing their ability to campaign during the election.

Sharif’s government would have to address this issue along with other violent incidents not actually Jihadi-related.

Separatist rebels battling to control Baluchistan’s natural gas and other resources also operate in the province. They have no connection with the Pakistani Taliban.

Let’s recall that TTP, which denounced democracy as un-Islamic, killed more than 150 people during the election campaign, including 24 on polling day itself.

According to  a report, released by the Congressional Research Service in 2011, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan is an umbrella organisation of hardline militant groups in western Pakistan that has more closely allied itself with Al Qaeda in recent years. The August 2009 death of TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud was a notable success for US strategy, as were the May 2010 deaths of Al Qaeda’s third-ranking operative, Egyptian national Mustafa Abu Al Yazid, and that of his successor, Egyptian national Sheikh Fateh, four months later. All three deaths were assumed caused by US-launched missiles. Yet a flurry of lethal suicide bomb attacks on urban Pakistani targets in late 2009 continued (at a significantly reduced pace) in 2010 and demonstrates the resiliency of regional militant groups. New Al Qaeda-allied militant leaders have arisen to pose major threats beyond the region. Among the most notable is Ilyas Kashmiri, the commander of the Pakistan-based Harakat-ul Jihad Islami: (HuJI, or Movement for an Islamic Holy War) – a militant group formed in the 1980s and since, closely aligned with Al Qaeda.

In this context, viewed from the Pakistani perspective, Obama’s recent speech on counterterrorism does not sound helpful.

Speaking at The National Defence University on May 23, 2013, President Obama laid out the framework for US counter-terrorism strategy. He said the United States has taken lethal, targeted operations against Al Qaeda and its network, including with drones. He recognised that this new technology raises profound questions —about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under US and international law; about accountability and morality. Yet, Mr Obama called the drone strikes by the US “effective and legal.” However, “to say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance,” said the President.

The speech follows the May 11 election of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister in Pakistan, which has felt the brunt of the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone programme. It comes amid steps by Congress to review their authorisation for the use of military force that stemmed from the September 11, 2001, attacks, and amid concerns that other countries are pursuing drone technology.

The problem is not solved, though. Some experts have already observed that “the specific viewpoint on the characteristics and causes of terrorism shapes perceptions about whether a state can employ its armed forces as part of its effort to contain and ultimately defeat terrorism, or whether the use of military means would be counterproductive.”

If this is so within every individual state, how about using military means for the same purpose in foreign countries? Moreover, airstrike campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are conducted with a degree of government secrecy enabled by the fact that there are few supporting US ground troops and/or CIA agents in these countries.

Would it not be normal then that the perception of such action—even performed in good faith and without many collateral damages—becomes marred with the feelings that any foreign aggression would arouse in people?

It is doubtful that the US stance would help Mr Sharif’s government and all those trying—in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc… —to tackle the terrorist problem with domestic means.  Maybe for the US is it worth killing six civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Yemen, in order to get rid of one or two terrorists? But if those same innocent victims were Americans, the US government would not be so sure about the “high-precision” of its technology.

The continual repetition of those unintended killings has another political consequence: it arouses the local population against the government, accused of turning a blind eye to the action of the Americans, or even conspiring with them against its own people. It calls for revenge, and motivates steady support to radicals and jihadists, who become popular heroes.

Result: the policy of the US is worsening the problem. When you kill two or three innocents, you make ten new terrorists.

Is it worth?

Why not just cooperate with local governments trying to address the issue of terrorism, advise them, support them, help them with intelligence and other anti-terrorist means, and let them operate on the field?

The US military involvement abroad has not been so far as “effective” as Mr Obama thinks. This is not new anyway, and he knows it, since he promised to withdraw forces from Afghanistan in 2014, after withdrawing from Iraq. The new technology, which he seems to trust, is not perfect. It is killing innocents. This is as bad as immoral. Those people are not lab rats, but real persons.  

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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