Photo: US Army/Wikimedia
On Sunday, a US drone attacked an abandoned girls’ school in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, killing three Islamist militants and wounding two, The New York Times reports.The attack goes directly against a mid-April Pakistani parliamentary resolution demanding an end to the drone program, the third resolution to be ignored.
And while U.S.-Pakistan relations have never been smooth sailing, this time around, diplomacy will be more difficult than it has been in the past because of one thing: elections.
With both countries are due for national elections soon (Pakistan in early 2013 and the US in November 2012), expectations at home are high and bluster may take precedence over conflict resolution, despite deteriorating ties between the two countries.
The Pakistan government has clearly spoken out against the strikes
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry on Monday issued a statement saying the strikes “are in total contravention of international law and established norms of interstate relations,” the AP reports.
The move was necessary because of the unpopularity of the drones: Many Pakistanis believe the attacks mostly kill civilians, and of course, there are many among the military and civilian population who bristle at foreign interference on Pakistani soil. With elections looming, populist maneuvers are vital, especially for a civilian government struggling to keep its hold on power.
There are some signs of a more tempered tone, however. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has argued the parliamentary resolution also said foreign fighters (like al-Qaeda and the Taliban) must be expelled from the country and its soil should not be used to attack other countries — a position that (tacitly at least) suggests support for drone attacks. Gilani perhaps knows that he needs to balance Pakistan’s growing anti-American sentiment with pacifying the same Americans to keep the over $1 billion in military aid flowing into the country.
To America, the drones are the only option
Many in the US military establishment believes drones are the only way to target Taliban and al-Qaeda militants who use Pakistan as a base to attack American troops in Afghanistan. The Pakistani military has repeatedly refused to engage them, claiming its forces are stretched too thin by operations against homegrown anti-Pakistan militants (although some feel the reluctance stems from Pakistan’s desire to gain a stronghold in Afghanistan once NATO leaves).
Pakistan has demanded an unconditional apology from the U.S. in return for reopening NATO supply lines into Afghanistan, closed after a November drone attack accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops, but an April 15 attack on American troops by Pakistani militants made that unlikely (the Pentagon now says both sides are to blame, according to The Washington Post).
Any backtracking or compromise now could be seen by the American people as being “soft” on terror (a recent Gallup poll showed just 15 per cent of Americans now view Pakistan favourably), and provide fodder to Republicans looking for anything to show President Obama’s incompetence. In an election year, it could mean political suicide.
Ultimately, the bad may well outweigh the good
“When a duly elected democratic Parliament says three times not to do this, and the U.S. keeps doing it, it undermines democracy,” a Pakistani government official told The Washington Post. Washington needs to preserve Pakistan’s fragile democracy to keep a necessary ally in the region, and effectively showing the Pakistani people that their government is powerless against the might of the U.S. is a huge blow to its legitimacy.
The new strikes, the first since March 30, could easily provoke a backlash against further negotiations with the U.S., whether on aid or supply lines. It fuels the belief that the U.S. has no regard for Pakistan’s sovereignty and is not a real ally, further feeding into anti-American sentiment.
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