World

Pakistan sees red over US drones

Jon Boone

The death of al-Qaeda's second in command has underscored its opposition to the remote bombers. Jon Boone and Jason Burke report.

Protest prayer: Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan activists pray during a protest rally against US drone attacks. (Asif Hassan, AFP)

A drone strike earlier this week killed al-Qaeda’s second in command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, United States officials claimed on Tuesday, hours after Pakistan officially reprimanded a top US diplomat, declaring such attacks to be against international law and in violation of its sovereignty.

Libi “was among al-Qaeda’s most experienced and versatile leaders”, a US official said. It was also claimed that a Pakistani Taliban leader confirmed Libi’s death, saying it was a “big loss”.

But earlier on Tuesday, Richard Hoagland, the US charge d’affaires in Islamabad, was called into the foreign ministry after a recent increase in missile attacks by remotely controlled aircraft. He was told that drone strikes represented “a clear red-line for Pakistan”, a government statement said.

The timing of Pakistan’s stand has highlighted the immense stresses the drone campaign is putting on efforts by Washington and Islamabad to patch up their deeply distrustful relationship.

Pakistani officials claimed that Libi, a high-profile al-Qaeda “terrorist” who once escaped from a top-security US military prison, may have been killed by a drone strike on Monday on Hasokhel, a village in North Waziristan, where Taliban and al-Qaeda militancy thrives. The attack was reported to have claimed up to 18 lives.

Legendary status
Libi enjoyed legendary status within the movement and was second only in authority to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. If, as the US claims, the strike was successful, it again underlines the importance the Obama administration places on drones in its fight against terrorists.

Al-Qaeda can often wait weeks or even months to admit to the deaths of its senior commanders.

Syed Amid, a tribal elder from the area, said he was not aware of whether Libi was killed, but said that up to 18 militants had been killed and that “some foreigners were among the dead”, including Arabs.

But a Pakistani intelligence official said he believed Libi was in the house that was targeted by missiles and that one of his vehicles was also destroyed.

Although drone strikes are unpopular within Pakistan, some people living in the semi-autonomous tribal areas where the strikes are concentrated say they support them.

Nazim Dawar, a social worker from the town of Mir Ali, said there were never any popular demonstrations in his area against drones. “It is only the people in the cities like Islamabad, Karachi and Peshawar that agitate against them,” he said.

But Mohammad Iqbal, a labourer from North Waziristan, said the strikes were “pulling apart the social and economic fabric” of the tribal areas. “About half the people have had to move to other areas to escape the drones,” he said. “Anyone who stays lives in terror they will be killed.”

For Pakistan, the attacks have to stop. As the country’s foreign ministry pointed out to Hoagland, the country’s parliament had “emphatically stated [drone strikes] were unacceptable”.

“He was informed that the drone strikes were against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty,” a government statement said. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

Obama’s gung-ho attitude to Pakistani killings was a long time in the making
United States President Barack Obama, according to Foreign Policy, “has become George W Bush on steroids”. Armed with a “kill list”, the Nobel peace laureate now hosts “Tuesday terror” meetings at the White House to discuss targets for drone attacks in Pakistan and at least five other countries.

Unlike the slacker Bush, who famously disdained specifics, Obama routinely deploys his Ivy League training in law. Many among the dozens of “suspected militants” massacred by drones in the past three days in north-western Pakistan are likely to be innocent.

Reports gathered by nongovernment organisations and Pakistani media about previous attacks speak of a collateral damage running into hundreds and deepening anger and hostility to the US. No matter: in Obama’s legally watertight bureaucracy, drone attacks are not publicly acknowledged; or if they have to be, civilian deaths are flatly denied and all the adult dead are categorised as “combatants”.

Obama himself signed off on one execution knowing it would also kill innocent family members. He has also made it “legal” to execute Americans without trial and has expanded secret surveillance, preserved the CIA’s renditions programme, violated his promise to close down Guantanamo Bay and ruthlessly arraigned whistle-blowers.

Perhaps it is time to ask again: Who is Barack Obama? And how has Pakistan featured in his worldview?

Literary power of Obama’s speeches
The first question now seems to have been settled too quickly, largely because of the literary power of Obama’s speeches and writings. His memoir, Dreams from My Father, was quickened by the drama of the self-invented man from nowhere, the passionate striving, eloquent self-doubt and ambivalence that Western literature, from Stendhal to Naipaul, has trained us to identify with refined intellect and soul. Not surprisingly, Obama’s careful self-presentation seduced some prominent literary critics, inviting comparisons with James Baldwin.

Later biographies of Obama, published after he became president, have complicated the picture of him as the possessor of diversely sourced identities (Kenya, Indonesia, Hawaii, Harvard). David Maraniss’s new biography shows that, at college, the bright student from Hawaii’s closest friends were Pakistanis and he carried around a dog-eared copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But Obama also began early, as one girlfriend of his reported in her diary, to “strike out”, “shedding old images”.

“Do you think I will be president of the United States?” he asked a slightly bemused Pakistani friend, who then witnessed “Obama slowly but carefully distancing himself from the Pakistanis as a necessary step in establishing his political identity”.

“For years,” Maraniss writes, “Obama seemed to share their attitudes as sophisticated outsiders who looked at politics from an international perspective. But to get to where he wanted ... he had to change.” Obama’s Pakistani friend recalls: “The first shift I saw him undertaking was to view himself as an American in a much more fundamental way.”

In an incorrigibly rightwing political culture, this obliged Obama always to appear tougher than his white opponents. During his 2008 presidential debates with John McCain, Obama often startled many of us with his threats to expand the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Calculated doses of force
More disquietingly, he claimed the imprimatur of Henry Kissinger, who partnered Richard Nixon in the ravaging of Cambodia, paving the way for Pol Pot, while still devastating Vietnam.

It cannot be said that Obama did not prepare us for his murderous spree in Pakistan. It is also true that drone warfare manifests the same pathologies – racial contempt, paranoia, blind faith in technology and the superstition of body counts – that undermined the US in Vietnam.

The White House has been used before to plot daily mayhem in some obscure, under-reported corner of the world.

During the long bombing campaign named Rolling Thunder, President Lyndon Johnson personally chose targets in Indochina, believing that “carefully calculated doses of force could bring about desirable and predictable responses from Hanoi”.

A weak Pakistan, its rulers bribed and bullied into acquiescence, is the easier setting for a display of American firepower. In ways his Pakistani college friends could not have foreseen, their country now carries the burden of verifying Obama’s extra-American manhood, especially at election time.

Obama was quick to say sorry to Poland last week for saying “Polish death camps” rather than “death camps in Poland” in a speech. But he refuses to apologise for the American air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November last year. Widespread public anger has forced Pakistan’s government to block the Nato’s supply routes to Afghanistan and any hint of infirmity on the sensitive issue of sovereignty is likely to strengthen some of the country’s nastiest extremists. Thus, the few possibilities of political stability in a battered country are now hostage to Obama’s pre-election punitiveness.

Nearly four years after his ecstatically hailed ascension to the White House, Obama resembles Baldwin much less than he does Rudyard Kipling and other uncertain children of empire who, as Ashis Nandy writes in The Intimate Enemy, replaced their early identification with the weak with “an unending search for masculinity and status”.  – Pankaj Mishra, © Guardian News & Media 2012

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