“What the drones are trying to achieve … we do not disagree. If they’re going for terrorists, we do not disagree. But we have to find ways which are lawful, which are legal.” Thus spake Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s foreign minister, at a US think tank. She also said: “The use of unilateral strikes on Pakistani territory is illegal; it is illegal and it is unlawful.”
This is an interesting statement because it implies that Pakistan will have no problem with the drones if they are employed legally. What could that be?
One way of making the use ‘legal’ is for the US to get Pakistan’s permission before striking. This was the case until a point and Pakistan was not much concerned about who got killed and why. For several reasons, not least the now very high frequency of drones use, the high number of ‘signature’ strikes, and legal-normative questions over drone strikes, Islamabad cannot remain nonchalant about such attacks on its soil.
Politically, the issue has reached a point at home where no government can say to the people that strikes from X date onwards have become legal because the US now seeks our permission. They strike if we permit; they don’t if we don’t. Not only is this not possible to verify, it raises another question: who is determining the targets? Does the intel come from Pakistan or the US? Should Pakistan allow the killing on its soil of someone, anyone, who has been labelled a ‘terrorist’ by another state using procedures and information that cannot be verified by Pakistan independently? These questions increasingly inform the broader international debate on drones use.
The only ‘legal’ framework is for Pakistan to possess the platform and use it on its territory according to its own legal and targeting procedures. Short of this, it is difficult to see what possible, though improbable, mechanism the FM was/is pointing at.
The FM’s statement also puts the issue in the narrow operational framework: if they are killing terrorists that’s ok. But that’s a big ‘if’ and by the looks of it getting ‘iffy-er’. Neither is the use of drones and the questions it has thrown up just a bilateral issue. The questions go beyond the operational significance of the drones use. That is an important and commendable development, not just for normative, but for important strategic reasons.
Let’s put it this way: the increased tactical use (even success) of the US drones war is precisely the failure of the strategic objectives for which Washington had started this self-declared ‘war on terror’. That’s the central problem with drones use.
Operationally, the remotely-piloted vehicles armed with missiles are a force-multiplier platform. They can reconnoitre and kill effectively. The US is already experimenting with arming the RPVs with low-collateral damage missiles, lighter with less radius of destruction than the heavier Hellfire system currently in use. Soon enough, it will have more precision. But that’s about it — a very effective platform at the theatre and tactical levels, great operational significance that is unlikely to lead to any politico-strategic plus.
Clausewitz posited that the grammar of war is grounded in war’s “triple nature”. The first level is the “primitive violence of people”: “the ability to take risks and the willingness to kill”; the second level relates to managing violence and harnessing it to an aim. This is done by the military commanders; the third level is political where the government determines the ultimate objective of war.
Clausewitz determined that there would be tension between the first level and second and also between the second and third levels. But all the three levels have to be taken together since that is what constitutes the triple nature of war as well as its grammar.
He used the terms Zweck und Ziel, the first referring to “purpose”, the second to “aim”. The ‘Zweck’ denotes the political objective for which a war is being fought; the ‘Ziel’ relates to the actual conduct and aim of battles, of which many may be fought to achieve the political end. The Ziel must then add up to the Zweck or as Philip Windsor put it: “Clausewitz argues that the Ziel must always be defined in the context of the Zweck and be subordinate to it.”
If Clausewitz’s argument is to be used as performance metric, let’s see where the US began and how it has fared: from conjuring up grand scenarios of stabilising the greater Middle East to refashioning it to fighting insurgencies and learning to eat soup with a knife (instead of finding a spoon) to a narrowed-down focus on counterterrorism using covert ops teams and, now, drones. Refashioning is démodé, as is COIN with its McPetraeo-conceptualised Zen and the Art of Counterinsurgency Sustenance. Winning hearts and minds is passé.
So how does one win this war; more aptly, how does one extricate? That’s a tough proposition. It is important to create a narrative of victory, or relative victory. The night raids have been successful, as are the drones. The narrative should, therefore, focus on how good the intelligence is and how many of the Taliban and al Qaeda leaders have been taken out.
In come the armed RPVs, a cheaper option that can be used anywhere. Improved technology means they will be more effective. If a state allows them, good. If not, the US can use them unilaterally. Customary international law is subservient to domestic US legislation anyway. Add to this the ‘political question doctrine’ and the unilateral use of drones or its consequences — people killed, property destroyed, etc. — becomes non-justiciable: i.e., the US administration cannot be sued in any US court because national security and the conduct of foreign policy is the executive’s political domain and outside the purview of the courts.
So, we have tactics guiding strategy, success determined by how many ‘terrorists’ have been taken out. The idea seems like a variation on the stability-instability paradox. Keep the Homeland secure and use drones and other such platforms to strike at groups remotely. To keep the centre secure, keep the periphery unstable.
This article was originally published at: The Express Tribune
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.