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.


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