The militants have taken an estimated 45,000 civilian lives in their attacks in the past six years, and those of 8,000 soldiers. In theory, that ought to make eliminating them a primary goal of the Pakistani military. But it cannot or will not. Critics suggest that the military continues to view the insurgents as an asset in its proxy war with India.
Lieutenant-General Talat Masood, who is retired from a top position in the army, has a kinder interpretation. In an interview in his cozy Islamabad living room, he says it is simply unrealistic to think that the Pakistani military, equipped as it is, can fight a fleet-footed insurgency in some of the world’s harshest terrain.
And no matter what the army does, Gen. Masood says, the government has done almost none of what’s needed to reduce support for the militants – to extend full citizenship to people in the tribal areas and aggressively provide schooling, health care and economic opportunities.
Given that, the drones do not look so bad: That is the politically incorrect sentiment one hears in private conversations across the political and socio-economic spectrum, in marked contrast to the anti-drone arguments that fill the editorial pages.
Drones are also, some argue, preferable to having the United States deploy soldiers in Pakistan – which the U.S. government would be unlikely to do in any case.
Drones are also better than risking the lives of even more Pakistani soldiers to the near-constant Taliban attacks in the tribal areas, this argument runs.
“A lot of high-profile targets are eliminated, and who would do this job if Americans boots are not on the ground and the Pakistan army won’t?” says Arif Nizami, editor-in-chief of the daily Pakistan Today.
Of course, drones also take the lives of civilians with no connection to militancy – and the actual role of those killed in any violent activity, even if they are Islamist sympathizers, is never confirmed. The government allows no journalists or independent researchers to visit strike sites, so the information about all deaths is unconfirmed.
Reports in the Pakistani media often offer wildly differing casualty figures and identities of victims for the same strike. Several media outlets reported that a woman was killed while leading her buffalo in from the fields on Oct. 24 near Miranshah, and that her two children, who were nearby, were badly injured by the missile. Yet other media accounts said the dead person was a male militant.
Still, Mr. Nizami argues that a conventional military campaign would cause even greater “collateral damage” – take more civilian lives. He says this viewpoint mostly goes unspoken, given that drones so clearly undermine Pakistan’s sovereignty.
“Drones are a very hard choice for a pacifist to make,” says Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear scientist turned peace activist who is the best-known advocate for non-violence in Pakistan.
Is it better to kill Islamists than to have them killing people? That’s the debate, he says, burying his face in his hands at the thought of the moral quandary his country faces.
It is not clear how much the Pakistani military is told by the United States about the drone campaign – how much advance warning it gets of a strike, if any, or how much it is told about the identity of targets or actual victims. Diplomatic documents released by WikiLeaks have suggested that until 2011, the army was letting drones operate from a Pakistani military base.
Many Pakistanis believe the military actively feeds the drone program intelligence about insurgent activity even today, because it, too, perceives the campaign as more effective than other options, Mr. Nizami says.
The army spokesman’s office declined repeated requests for an interview.
The last person who would ever give up the fight against drones is an erudite lawyer named Shahzad Akbar, who runs an organization called the Foundation for Fundamental Rights in a leafy neighbourhood in the capital, where he works to make heard the voices of victims from the tribal areas.
While he understands that the killings may make someone sitting in Islamabad feel safer, he says, he finds it ethically abhorrent to conclude that drones are a boon to the country.