News connected to Pakistan is a bit like reading a George RR Martin novel. It’s grim. It’s depressing. There’s too many characters that come in and out of nowhere and the narrative never seems to arrive at a sensible conclusion. The myriad of interests that intersect and the constant natural and man-made calamities that assault the populace can be numbing.
But one constant emerges: Life is cheap.
If I offend, then I apologize. I don’t mean it as a pejorative against Pakistanis. The life of a Pakistani is worth as much as any person’s. Rather, it’s that human lives seem a constant currency being exchanged by everyone from militants to mother nature herself.
Factory fires in Karachi, floods in Balochistan, army offensives into the Swat Valley (Bajaur in particular) and bombings plus militant attacks show a country where people are killed with alarming frequency.
So it’s upon this backdrop, rather than a blank slate, that I’ve looked upon the presence of border conflict in the Af-Pak borderlands and drone strikes.
Even if we take the high range estimate of 881 civilians killed by drones since 2004, that’s only twice the number killed in one day by cruel and exploitative factory owners. It’s eight times the number killed in one week’s worth of fighting in the Swat Valley. It’s less than one percent the number of people displaced during the first Swat Offensive, and one twentieth the number of people displaced simply by the mere rumor that the Pakistani Military is going on an offensive against militants.
Just as importantly the drone strikes are not solely aimed at militants threatening the US. The government of Pakistan has been using the drone program as a means of attacking anti-government militants. The “bad guys” aren’t just Al Qaeda, but rather militant groups that have made life traumatic and violent in much of Northwest Pakistan. As Meg Braun deftly argues, the aggressive use of drone warfare in targeting militants may in fact be preventing spillover and general unrest in Pakistan as a whole. Certainly it’s a lesser evil than aggressive army crackdowns and offensives, which displace hundreds of thousands of people and kill thousands indiscriminately.
The lack of transparency in the drone program is troubling. There are many questions that need to be asked about it. I’m also very weary of comparisons that ask questions of “what if they were doing it in the US?”.
Pakistan is not the United States.
There are substantial concerns over the state’s stability and its ability to maintain control of large tracts of its own territory. Security assistance is part of that rubric. And while the US-Pakistan relationship is fraught with perils and murky in its reliability, I have serious and persistent doubts that US disengagement will on the whole simply make lives for innocents in Pakistan any better.