For PBS: The Islamabad Drone Dance

The U.N. Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on Counter-Ter­ror­ism and Human Rights,Ben Emmer­son, con­duct­ed a three-day vis­it to Islam­abad, Pak­istan last week. Despite his stat­ed pur­pose to inves­ti­gate drone strikes, he did not speak with any of the agen­cies respon­si­ble for those strikes, or even vis­it any strike sites.

Instead, Mr. Emmer­son met with some gov­ern­ment offi­cials, duti­ful­ly report­ed what they said, and used the chance to con­demn the U.S. pro­gram as a vio­la­tion of Pakistan’s sov­er­eign­ty and with­out the government’s con­sent.

It was an unfor­tu­nate act of creduli­ty by Mr. Emmer­son. The Amer­i­can drones pro­gram is coor­di­nat­ed through Pakistan’s mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence ser­vice, the ISI. In a state­ment from the U.N., Mr. Emmer­son “regrets” fail­ing to meet with the Pak­istan Mil­i­tary or the ISI but the charge that such strikes hap­pen with­out Pakistan’s con­sent remains.

Based on a pub­lic records search, the U.S. runs its drones pro­gram from at least half a dozen air­bas­es across Pak­istan.

U.S. offi­cials have spo­ken of these Pak­istani air­bas­es for years, as have Pak­istani offi­cials. Dur­ing the 2010 floods in Pak­istan, Health sec­re­tary Khush­nood Lashari com­plained that they could not use the air­field at Sham­si for relief efforts because it was being used by the Unit­ed States (the U.S. denied the charge.)

The Pak­istani gov­ern­ment told Mr. Emmer­son that a a thor­ough search of Pak­istani gov­ern­ment records had revealed no indi­ca­tion of con­sent. Yet for years, Pak­istani offi­cials are on the record, open­ly acknowl­edg­ing such con­sent.

At the end of 2011, when a mis­tak­en U.S. strike on Pak­istani bor­der guards soured rela­tions between Wash­ing­ton and Islam­abad, the U.S. obeyed a Pak­istani request to aban­don the Sham­si air­base. Pak­istan suc­cess­ful­ly closed down Amer­i­can sup­ply routes to Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012 in protest of the bor­der guard strike.  The U.S. protest­ed, but it com­plied with the clo­sure.

If the U.S. were oper­at­ing with­out Pakistan’s con­sent, it would have ignored those requests.

The sim­ple truth is that the Amer­i­can and Pak­istani gov­ern­ments col­lab­o­rate on drone strikes. They share infor­ma­tion, video footage, and some­times the Pak­ista­nis even car­ry out their own drone strikes. The U.S. uses Pak­istani air­bas­es to sup­port its drones, and the Pak­istani mil­i­taryclears its air­space so drones can fly unim­ped­ed.

When­ev­er the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment has asked the U.S. to scale back or with­draw per­son­nel – even CIA per­son­nel – the U.S. has coop­er­at­ed. Mr. Emmer­son said the For­eign Affairs Min­istry has sent the U.S. embassy sev­er­al Notes Ver­bales (unsigned, third-per­son mem­os) request­ing drone strikes stop. It has not, how­ev­er, issued any for­mal writ­ten request to end the pro­gram – that we know of.

Pakistan’s gov­ern­ment has tak­en no con­crete steps to end the U.S. drone pro­gram, either; they have not closed down air­bas­es, revoked flight per­mis­sions, oust­ed any offi­cials or filed any offi­cial requests to end the pro­gram. Addi­tion­al­ly, drones fly slow­ly and lack defens­es – they are easy to shoot down. Iran has tracked and harassed U.S. drones that fly too close to its air­space.  Pak­istan has nev­er done some­thing sim­i­lar. Most impor­tant­ly, diplo­mat­ic cables leaked by Wik­ileaks revealed that the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment grant­ed the U.S. per­mis­sion to car­ry out drone strikes while pub­licly con­demn­ing them.

Yet, the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment per­sists with the laugh­able asser­tion that it has nev­er grant­ed the U.S. con­sent. It would be fun­ny if it weren’t so sad.

The drone debate is a vital one – it touch­es on issues of exec­u­tive author­i­ty with­in the U.S, crit­i­cal issues about the rule of law and the law of armed con­flict, and inter­na­tion­al human­i­tar­i­an law. These are all issues that will affect how war is fought in the future. It is absolute­ly vital that the pub­lic under­stand them and gov­ern­ments agree to norms and laws for how they’ll unfold.

That debate, how­ev­er, can­not hap­pen so long as the gov­ern­ments involved con­tin­ue to mis­lead the pub­lic about what is going on. The U.S. gov­ern­ment is not inno­cent in this debate, either; U.S. offi­cials have madedubi­ous claims about drone strikes that sim­ply do not stand up under scruti­ny.

So long as  gov­ern­ments approv­ing drone strikes con­tin­ue to make mis­lead­ing state­ments, the issue will remain stag­nant and unchang­ing, no mat­ter what the spe­cial rap­por­teur says to the press.


Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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