x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

'Drones overhead, blades on the ground.'

The US drones have added violence, suspicion and uncertainty, but misery was already in place for the estimated 1.6 million people living in the seven militant-laden Federally Administered Tribal Area.

ISLAMABAD // In South and North Waziristan, Pakistan tribesmen commonly express their lives with the saying, "Drones overhead and (the Taliban's) blades on the ground."

In a series of interviews, a range of Pakistani analysts said the darkly humorous quip has become popular among a population trapped against the Afghanistan border by a semi-secret war involving three combatants, all with their own agenda.

The players are Pakistani and Afghan militants, the Pakistan military and the US Central Intelligence Agency, which operates the unmanned drone aircraft that have become a regular feature of daily life for the residents since 2008.

The drones have added violence, suspicion and uncertainty, but misery was already in place for the estimated 1.6 million people living in the seven militant-laden Federally Administered Tribal Areas, known collectively as the Fata, analysts said.

"The lives of Fata residents were in ruins before the drones appeared overhead," said Ashraf Ali, president of the Fata Research Centre (FRC), an Islamabad-based think tank.

He quantified the suffering: about 75 per cent of residents rely on income from agriculture, but only seven per cent of can currently be farmed. The majority of cultivatable land has been abandoned since the militant insurgency erupted in 2003.

Practically all of the 600,000 schoolchildren in the Fata have been displaced by the war that pits militants against the Pakistani military and US drones, Mr Ali said.

The Fata continues to be ruled under a set of 19th century laws drawn up by the British colonial government in India. The Fata tribes have largely been left to govern themselves according to their traditions and tribal elders, or maliks.

The Fata are several hundreds years behind the rest of the country, experts estimate, in terms of infrastructure and social development, and democratic rights. There is just one paved road connecting the administrative headquarters of each of the seven tribal regions to the rest of the country.

The local health care facilities are barely functioning and cannot perform even the simplest surgical procedures. After the militant insurgency in the Fata erupted in 2004, doctors and other medical staff who were not residents fled for fear of their lives, residents said.

The advent of the drones has added an element of uncertainty. Many Fata residents wonder aloud "when the next one will strike".

That strike-capability has greatly restricted the movements of militant commanders, disrupting their command-and-control structure, and breaking their ability to plan and disperse propaganda, said Mr Ali.

But the uncertainty has also hampered local businesses and social interaction, he said. People are reluctant to move publicly and suspicious of interaction with members of the community in case they have links with the militants.

"Some guy in Miranshah [the primary town in North Waziristan] could be standing next to a militant in the drones' sights and not know it," he said.

Yet the drones have not had the widely feared impact of increasing a tendency towards militancy, according to reports from FRC researchers based in the Fata.

"Hatred of the US" was a common sentiment in the area long before the drones became a feature of the Fata skies, Mr Ali said.

The Fata public is equally resentful of the tactics of Pakistan's military, he said.

"People say: we can accept the destruction of our property and livelihoods, but only if the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leadership is killed. They have not been," he said.

Social commentators said the "greatest tragedy" of the Fata residents is that they have no voice in the national debate about the conflict that has destroyed their tribal civilisation.

That sentiment is what connects them with other "disconnected and disenfranchised" Pakistanis, with whom they otherwise have very little in common, the commentators said.

"The irony is that a lawyer in Karachi complaining about drone attacks is, in ordinary life, totally distanced from the (Fata) people from an area he calls 'ilaqah ghair' - the other territory," said Mosharraf Zaidi, an Islamabad-based public policy expert.

"You have to pay attention to the narrative of indignity, because it's fuelling things that start only as rhetoric but could very well lead to Faisal Shahzad's Nissan Pathfinder," said Mr Zaidi, referring to Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistan-born US citizen and son of a Pakistani air force general who failed in an attempt to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square in May 2010.

Another contradiction is the projection of drone attacks as a US violation of Pakistani sovereignty by the country's powerful military intelligence services, the analysts said.

Suspicions of the government's complicity in drone strikes grew after the Pakistani media reported excerpts from the book Obama Wars, by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward.

In the book, the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, was quoted as saying he didn't care about collateral civilian deaths caused by drone strikes as long as they eliminated the targeted terrorist suspects.

The analysts said suspicions of complicity were confirmed in December when leaked US state department cables, released by Wikileaks, quoted Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, as giving his authorisation.

"The government of Pakistan lies to its people for its own strategic gains," said Christine Fair, a security expert at the Georgetown University in Washington, and noted "Af-Pak" consultant for the Pentagon.

"By keeping the dichotomy, there is no transparency and what persist are nonsensical perceptions."

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae