This Saturday, Pakistani politician and former cricket star Imran Khan plans to lead his PTI party into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on a “peace march.” Khan’s goal is to draw attention to the stark living conditions and lack of services in that remote area, but his primary objective in taking a walk through the mountains with 100,000 of his closest friends is…yes, you guessed it. Protesting against me, your long-suffering, oft-maligned Predator drone.
Although Pakistan’s government is less than thrilled about this idea, Khan has won the support of the Pakistani Taliban, who have guaranteed security for his marchers. Interestingly, Khan has blamed the government for tacitly permitting American drone strikes in the FATA, while also repeating the government’s claim that such strikes violate Pakistani sovereignty. Unfortunately, he’s contradicted himself. His first argument is fair; the second is a canard.
It’s worth pointing out that the term “canard” has its roots in the French word for duck. Specifically, it comes from that waterfowl’s well-known tactic of making loud noises and feigning injury to draw potential threats away from its nest.
And sovereignty- the right of a state to dictate what goes on within their borders- is the bedrock of the most common legalistic argument against drone strikes. Pakistani politicians (and those on the world stage who sympathize with them, like Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov) claim that American drone strikes in the FATA, in the face of Pakistani objections, constitute a violation of sovereignty. They are wrong, for the simple reason that Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter allows one nation to use force in the territory of another if the host nation grants permission.
A recent Wall Street Journal story made the degree to which Pakistan permits drone strikes abundantly clear. In comically-archaic fashion, the CIA faxes (yes, faxes) a monthly description of roughly where and how they intend to operate UAVs to Pakistani intelligence. The ISI used to fax back an acknowledgment; after the bin Laden raid, they stopped. But to this day, the Pakistani military continues to engage in “deconfliction,” ensuring that its own aircraft and civilian traffic do not interfere with American operations. (Brookings’ Lawfare blog has a podcast interview with CFR senior fellow Daniel Markey, which features an informative segment on the genesis of this Pakistani-American arrangement.)
Every time I cross the border, every time an American missile hits Pakistani soil, Pakistan’s government exercises their sovereignty by choosing not to blow me out of the sky. I operate openly, and Pakistan’s doing so would be a huge bummer, but well within their technical capacity. Yes, the sole act of not starting a war doesn’t equate to government permission. But sovereignty implies a range of options and authorities beyond war, and Pakistan has visibly exercised that sovereign authority in the recent past.
After the May 2011 bin Laden raid (which, as a side note, constituted a real sovereignty violation, with no warning whatsoever and American boots on the ground deep inside Pakistan) bilateral relations were already sour. But on November 17th of that year, a nighttime gun battle between NATO and Pakistani forces (the latter of whom were suspiciously close to fleeing Taliban) resulted in an air strike that killed 26 Pakistani border police near a village called Salala. Pakistan halted trucks resupplying NATO forces in Afghanistan, kicked American drone operations out of the Shamsi air base, and demanded an unprecedented cessation of drone strikes.
And we listened. Drone strikes that had been commonplace ground to a total halt. It took six weeks before U.S.-Pakistani ties had mended to the point where the strikes could resume. In contrast, it took six months of diplomacy and a public apology before Pakistan reopened the “Ground Lines of Communication.” This incident made it clear that, behind closed doors, Pakistani authorities could grant authority for American air strikes in the tribal areas- but they could also take it away. That’s sovereignty.
Some Americans have gone so far as to argue that Pakistan’s talk of sovereignty is ridiculous because the Pakistanis themselves can’t control the territory in question. Former CIA officer Art Keller argued in Forbes that “It is precisely Pakistan’s lack of sovereign control over the festering mess of militant activity in the FATA that makes our actions necessary,” and that Pakistanis should give up talk of sovereignty until they could establish it themselves.
I find myself defending Pakistan on that count. Sovereignty is the inherent right to control your territory, and that right isn’t solely dictated by your capacity to do so. The real problem is more complex; by publicly claiming a violation of sovereignty whilst privately exerting it, Pakistani policymakers avoid responsibility and accountability to their voters.
For what might a Pakistani politician be held accountable? In 2011, the National Counterterrorism Center estimated that Pakistan suffered 26 domestic terror attacks a week. A third of Pakistan’s kids don’t go to school and half its women are illiterate. 29 Pakistani journalists have been killed in the last five years, including Saleem Shahzad, whose work uncovering militant links to the Pakistani navy got him tortured to death by elements of the ISI. The government literally can’t afford to keep the lights on, so “load-shedding” by power companies plunges businesses and citizens into the dark. And Pakistan pays about 9% of GDP in taxes, which the Congressional Research service called “mass tax evasion by the country’s economic elite.” The Pakistani political class is much happier to instead see the nation’s outrage, ink and airtime dedicated to a safer topic. Like sovereignty violations.
And by cooperating with our counterterrorism efforts (including drone strikes,) the influential Pakistani military gets access to some of the choicest American defense hardware. Since 2001, we’ve sold- or even given- toys like P-3C Orion maritime patrol planes, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and AN/TPS-77 surveillance radars. We even gave them an Oliver Hazard Perry-class missile frigate, for crying out loud.
And no, the Taliban didn’t start buying yachts. As has been obvious for 10 years, U.S. counterterrorism assistance represents a golden opportunity for Pakistan’s armed forces to gear up for war with India. Ending drone strikes would derail a $4.3-billion gravy train. And that’s far from the only American aid in the mix; development groups receive billions of dollars for education, shelter and basic nutrition in Pakistan. (Of course, many Pakistanis have no idea. American markings are often removed from aid shipments out of fear that they will become targets for militants.)
The elected, legitimate government of Pakistan has weighed costs and benefits, and made a clear decision. Granting permission (however grudging or tacit it may be) for drone strikes represents a better option than risking a strategic break with America. By fixing public outrage on drone strikes without actually stopping them, Pakistani civilian leaders can divert attention from domestic problems while handing out an anonymized largesse of American development dollars. And Pakistan’s military can tolerate drone strikes as the cost of doing business; after all, they’re getting an arsenal of weaponry they can throw at their “real enemy,” India.
Pakistan’s claims of sovereignty violations are a canard in the most traditional sense of the word; a false pretense, designed to divert attention away from that which has real value. By (proverbially) quacking and flapping their wings over sovereignty, they hope to distract the world, and more importantly their domestic population, from their willingness to clear the FATA skies for robots like me in exchange for weapons, food, and cash.
They have been extraordinarily successful. The narrative has shifted from a holistic approach to Pakistan’s internal problems (of which tribal-area militancy is just one symptom, like education or electricity) to a worldwide drumbeat in which evil American spies and robots violate sacred borders. So when everyday Pakistanis complain about sovereignty, they do so instead of questioning secret decisions their leaders have made on their behalf.
When Pakistani leaders invoke the sovereignty canard, they seek to have it both ways; fight the Americans in public, reap the benefits of cooperation in private. And it works; everyday Pakistanis take to the streets and burn American flags instead of asking how their nominally-democratic government can be so wildly out of step with the will of its electorate. In part, this is what makes Imran Khan unusual; although he reserves plenty of outrage for America, he also doles out a fair amount to President Zardari for cooperating with us. That’s what makes Khan’s use of the sovereignty canard so silly.
Sending me to hunt bad guys in the FATA might be a strategic error. It clearly strains U.S.-Pakistan relations. And it’s definitely against Pakistani public opinion. But it certainly is not a sovereignty violation. So when you hear someone say otherwise….just listen for the quacking.