Speaking at his first cabinet meeting, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said "the dual policy of issuing public statements against drone attacks while [secretly] giving the go ahead to the US to carry on with the strikes will not be allowed under our rule. The US government will have to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan."
He was referring to WikiLeaks disclosure and President Pervez Musharraf's admission in April that he allowed "selective" drone strikes in 2004. Sharif's reaction came after the US launched a drone attack within two days of his taking power. Speaking during his first address on June 5 at the National Assembly, Sharif said "this [drones] chapter shall now be closed".
Furious at the US drone attack, the Foreign Office summoned the American Charge d' Affaires where Tariq Fatmi, Sharif's trusted plain-speaking former ambassador, now serving as his Special Assistant, met the Charge' and delivered a demarche. Drones are a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and "have a negative impact on the mutual desire of both the countries to forge a cordial and cooperative relationship," read a statement released by the Foreign Office after the meeting.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), who have vowed to shoot down drones, won the second-highest number of votes in the May 11 poll and now forms the government in the sensitive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. It has warned that "a mare diplomatic protest is not good enough" and have put forward a resolution in the National Assembly calling for immediate end of these "inhuman attacks."
Pakistan's street believes acquiescing to drones attacks makes Sharif complicit in the US war. Consequently, it feeds recruitment for extremist groups. Recalling a series of strikes a villager says, "of course this has made me hate the Americans. We are angry and want revenge".
"Drones give a reason to people who were not part of the conflict to become part of the conflict," said Shahzad Akbar, the human-rights lawyer who won a petition against drones at the Peshawar High Court declaring drones "illegal and a war crime". Pakistan's vote confirmed this is the view most Pakistanis hold.
Senator Lindsey Graham says drones have killed 4,700 people since the first strikes in 2004. No reliable figures are however available, as the areas remain virtually cut off from the rest of the country. "And what kind of laboratory is the US using to use test its drone program?" asks Akbar.
A recent New York and Stanford university study revealed the weapon has only a 2% success rate in killing high-value targets. Media reports have claimed that the CIA cannot even confirm the identity of one-quarter of those killed during 2010-2011, yet it has dismissively called the civilians killed "other militants" or "foreign fighters".
The legality of American drones is also seriously in question. And notwithstanding their legality, the US president admitted in an address earlier this month, "to say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance".
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group argues that drones may disrupt Pakistan's militants "but they cannot solve the fundamental problem". The ICG also questions the tactic of using signature strikes that target group of men based on behaviour patterns rather than known identities.
If the US continues to push too hard, it will enrage Pakistan's tribal citizens and general public further, jeopardising a safe American exit from Afghanistan. For Sharif, there is no easy way out.
Pakistan now awaits Secretary of State John Kerry's arrival later this month when this issue will be top of the agenda. Reports indicate though that Pakistan may offer to eliminate the "alleged terrorist sanctuaries" in exchange for complete cessation of drones. That can only come through negotiations, if it is to be sustained.
While building good relations with Washington may be an imperative for Sharif, the question of drone strikes will determine whether there can be lasting peace in the region. This is a test of his diplomatic and political skills. More importantly it is for the US to understand, as James Carroll put it in the New York Times on June 12, "by presuming to declare itself the solution, Washington puts itself, in that instant, at the heart of the problem."
Sajjad Ashraf, adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore and visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service, 1973-2008. –Asia Times Online