The drones, people say, are always there. In Pakistan’s tribal areas, the mountainous land along the northwest border, they can be seen and heard hovering above villages, sometimes in a cluster, often over mosques, markets and other gathering places.
By now, eight years into the United States’s undeclared air war on Islamist militants in Pakistan – a war that has intensified under Barack Obama – many Pakistanis say they can feel the drones even when they are not actually around. They carry a psychic trauma from living in fear of a strike at any moment from a weapon that can hang 12,200 metres above a village for 40 hours at a time.
Pakistanis unite against this idea of the invisible, ever-present enemy, even far away in urban Lahore. Imran Khan, a former cricket star who has become a leading opposition politician, has vowed that, if elected president, he will use the military to attack drones that violate Pakistan’s sovereignty.
The current government avoids the issue (especially the question of how much it cooperates), but officially it opposes them as a violation of international law. Newspapers and participants on vibrant Pakistani TV shows continually denounce the drones.
Yet behind closed doors, there is another, quieter conversation about the drone war under way – a more pragmatic, sometimes even approving one, which few people dare to have in public.
When a gunman boarded a school bus in the Swat Valley city of Mingora last month and shot a 15-year-old girl named Malala Yousufzai in the head – because, the Pakistani Taliban proclaimed, she advocated the “Western” idea of girls’ education – revulsion engulfed the country.
The Swat Valley was supposed to have been purged of militants in a 2009 military campaign. Although Taliban and al-Qaeda affiliates carry out almost daily attacks in the tribal areas and the north, they have not attacked the big cities often in the past two years. But the shooting of Malala made the problem once more impossible to ignore.
Clearly, the Taliban are not only unvanquished, they are operating with a considerable degree of comfort, or impunity. And, as always, it is unclear how much the intelligence services are able or willing to do.
Which leads to this forbidden question: If the Taliban are a genuine and grave danger, might U.S. drones not be the best possible way to fight them?
While no figures are released by the United States, anti-drone organizations and international research initiatives agree that there have been at least 300 attacks in Pakistan since the campaign began in 2004.
The policy is not controversial in the U.S.: When it was raised at all in the recent election, it was with approval on both sides. There has been very little public discussion about the program, or its legality, although some left-wing critics of Mr. Obama condemn it, especially when there are reports of civilian deaths.
The U.S. government will confirm none, but the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a British non-profit news organization, has researched and estimates the number of civilian deaths at 391 to 780 people, including 160 children. Many Pakistani organizations put it higher.
Living Under Drones, a report released this fall by groups at the Stanford and New York University law schools, said the strikes undermine international respect for the rule of law. The evidence that they make the United States safer, the report says, is “ambiguous at best.”
But do they make Pakistan safer?
The markets of Lahore were thronged with people in the days before Eid al-Adha last month, with families buying clothes for the children and knickknacks for their homes. In Islamabad, there are new cafés and boutiques in every neighbourhood; red-velvet cupcakes are trendy.
Two years ago, when the Taliban were sending suicide bombers into crowded public places in these cities every week or two, the markets and the coffee shops were deserted and people were afraid even to go to mosques.
That terror campaign has been checked – either because the Taliban have changed tactics or, as many analysts here suggest, because the intensified drone campaign has weakened them.
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.
“The whole burden of proof has been reversed by the U.S. in the public narrative: You are killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan, so you are a militant until you come out of your coffin and say otherwise,” Mr. Akbar says. “We have to have rule of law to have a civilized society. We have to agree that illegal killing is illegal killing – whether the Taliban or the Pakistan army or the U.S. army is doing it.”
He also noted that the drone campaign has been under way since 2004, with no overall decline in attacks.
“If drones are effective, why is Malala being shot? And not just Malala but so many innocent people being shot, military and civilians. You still have suicide bombings going on. … If this is the solution, then I’m astonished – why isn’t it working the last seven or eight years?”
Even Mr. Nizami, who is blunt about the positive aspects of the drone campaign, nevertheless argues that it should end. He believes that its propaganda value for the recruiters of new militant fighters outstrips its utility.
Meanwhile, the voices of civilians living in the drone-targeted areas are almost never heard: Since the military keeps journalists out, the only way research reports such as Living Under Drones get produced is that people who have been injured or lost a family member in a strike are provided with funds to travel to urban areas where they can be interviewed by researchers (though, of course, their views are not unbiased).
Yet Mr. Nizami says he believes that there is considerable support for the drones in many parts of the Taliban-plagued northern region of Khyber Pakthunkwha.
The United States itself barely acknowledges that the drone campaign exists – Mr. Obama has spoken of it publicly only once. But it shows no signs of slowing.
“The Americans are doing our very dirty job,” Mr. Nizami says.