U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech on the use of drones – vowing to strengthen oversight, rules of targeting and the protection of civilians – will be met with deep skepticism among the vast majority of Pakistanis, who see the strikes as a violation of national sovereignty and responsible for the deaths of innocent people.
It is a case of the public believing it when they see it – and for many, one strike is still one too many.
An estimated 366 drone strikes have killed up to 3,533 people in Pakistan since 2004, with as many as 884 civilian deaths, according to the Britain-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks U.S. drone strikes.
Previous Pakistani governments have been secretive about the exact arrangements with the United States on the use of drones in the country’s restive tribal areas.
The outgoing Pakistan People’s Party government called the drone program illegal and a violation of international law. But the strikes escalated.
Earlier this year, former president Pervez Musharraf told a CNN journalist that he had a secret deal with the United States to carry out limited drone strikes, or as he put it, “only on a few occasions, when a target was absolutely isolated and [there was] no chance of collateral damage.”
An interim government is currently in charge in Islamabad. In a statement on Friday, the Foreign Ministry welcomed Mr. Obama’s statement about the limits of the use of force, but the ministry said that Pakistan continues to oppose the use of drones on its territory.
Pakistan is emerging from historic May 11 elections during which politicians called for a more independent foreign policy that is not beholden to Washington.
Former cricket superstar-turned-politician Imran Khan even vowed to shoot down U.S. drones if elected prime minister.
Instead, the incoming government will be led by Nawaz Sharif – a two-time prime minister who has been elected to lead the country for a third time.
Mr. Sharif takes the helm at a time when drone strikes are declining in Pakistan from their peak in 2010. But any drone strike in the tribal areas could derail confidence in the incoming government.
Mr. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N faces immense challenges and high expectations. The country is facing a balance-of-payments crisis, widespread electricity outages that are crippling the economy and a strident Pakistan Taliban.
In his first postelection press conference with foreign journalists, he said Pakistan and the United States had “good relations” and that Pakistan would help the U.S. in its withdrawal from neighbouring Afghanistan next year.
But Mr. Sharif also reiterated his campaign position on the drones program.
“Drones indeed are challenging our sovereignty. Of course we have taken this matter up very seriously. I think this is a very serious issue, and our concern must be understood properly,” he said.
But limiting drone use on Pakistani territory raises a bigger question for many Western analysts: If drones are no longer permitted to strike targets on Pakistani soil, then how will Pakistan monitor and prevent militants from planning terrorist attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan and ensure that al-Qaeda does not use the tribal areas to rebuild?
A more pressing crisis for the Sharif government is the Pakistan Taliban, which is behind a wave of terrorist attacks across the country. Mr. Sharif has said he is open to negotiations. U.S. drone strikes have targeted the Pakistan Taliban in the past. More strikes could make it very difficult to reach a negotiated settlement.