Shiraz Maher

What can the Pakistani government do about drones?

What can the Pakistani government do about drones?
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The dilemma over drones continues today with the announcement that a leading Taliban figure, Mullah Nazir, was killed earlier this morning.

Public opinion in Pakistan is deeply hostile to such attacks even when militants are killed because of the perceived cost to civilians. Scores have been incorrectly identified as hostile jihadists and targeted as a result. Pakistan’s government has long adopted a dual-hatted approach. Officially it protests all drone strikes while privately sanctioning them.

That now appears to be changing and the Foreign Ministry is now more committed than ever to stopping drones in Pakistan. Part of the pressure is explained by upcoming elections, with drones becoming a key electoral issue. But relations with the United States are also been strained and have been in decline ever since the Abbottabad raid, and a subsequent $33 million cut in foreign aid to Pakistan by the Senate.

Yet the killing of Mullah Nazir represents a real dilemma for the government. It is pleased to see the back of him after he harboured other militants in the tribal areas and sponsored scores of cross-border attacks in Afghanistan. And if the drone strikes are stopped – costly as they are on civilian lives – what better alternative can Islamabad present? Whenever it has entered the tribal areas to fight militants, the army has haemorrhaged men. Indeed, it has suffered greater casualties fighting in that area alone than coalition forces have endured over the last decade in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Life for civilians is also unlikely to improve. Whenever fighting breaks out civilians are displaced in far larger numbers than those inadvertently targeted by drones.

The government’s position is hopeless. It cannot commit further resources (military or otherwise) to the tribal areas, but must also contort to accommodate those who want the drones to stop. If that pressure succeeds, the only winners will be the Taliban.