by Shahzad Rana, Friday Times
Is Jemima Khan’s new film against drones one sided?
Not very far from the glittering lights of Las Vegas, the foundation of America’s drone war was laid in the Creech Air Force Base at Indian Springs, Nevada.
Unmanned drone aircraft soon became the most useful weapon of the Barack Obama administration against high-value targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Somalia and Yemen.
The first such strike took place in Pakistan in June 2004, when militant commander Nek Muhammad was targeted days after Pakistan accused him of violating a peace deal.
According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the US had carried out 370 drone attacks in FATA by July 2013 – 52 of them under the Bush administration and 318 under Obama. Statistics on the number of people killed vary between 2,500 and 3,500. The bureau claims more than 800 civilians may have died in the attacks. Some estimates by rights groups put the toll of civilian casualties at up to 1,400.
Recently, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch joined hands with other rights groups to condemn the US for killing innocent civilians with drones.
The latest contribution to the anti-drone narrative comes from Jemima Khan, the ex-wife of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan. She produced a documentary saying drone attacks were illegal, unethical, and inhuman.
Imran Khan is himself a staunch critic of drone attacks. Recently, his party’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa threatened to block the NATO supply route in the frontline province if the United States did not stop attacks by unmanned aerial vehicles.
Critics say Jemima’s documentary – Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars – showed one side of the picture. It begins by reenacting a drone attack on a Jirga in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan Agency in March 2011. The attack killed 40 tribal elders who had had gathered there to discuss wood and chromite. The scenes of the dead and injured in the hospitals and the destruction after the attack were real.
The documentary quotes a news report by the Associated Press in which a US official defends the strike saying those killed were the terrorists, “not the free car washers.”
“The demand to stop drone attacks is a call to surrender”
It shows CIA Director John Brenan dismissing the reports of collateral damage in drone attacks. He asserts there are no civilian casualties in drone strikes.
The claims are followed by interviews with survivors and relatives of those who died, and visuals of children lying injured in hospitals. Such scenes have heightened the anti-US sentiments in Pakistan, according to the documentary.
The unmanned drones, Imran Khan says in the film, are inciting several hundred thousand armed citizens of the tribal areas to become militants.
But while the documentary focuses on collateral damage, its critics say it fails to acknowledge that a large number of Al Qaeda and Taliban militants are operating from those regions.
“Jemima and others mean well,” said Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, a renowned physicist and defense analyst. “Those who say it is illegal and immoral to kill from the sky are right. But they have yet to suggest an alternative. The demand to stop drone attacks is a call to surrender and submit to Taliban rule. This is unacceptable.”
He said drones had prevented large formations of Taliban fighters from acting in concert. “Many major jihadist leaders have been killed in such attacks. This sort of evidence suggests they are militarily significant, although they will not win the war. This conclusion is reinforced by the Taliban’s insistence of ending drone strikes before any talks.”
Television has encouraged the people of Pakistan into feeling a sharp pain when attacked from outside, but to remain indifferent when militants slaughter ordinary people, policemen, and soldiers, Hoodbhoy said.
Security analyst Ikram Sehgal said Pakistan and the US would reach some sort of an understanding on drone attacks by 2014. After their withdrawal from Afghanistan, it would be logistically impossible for the United States to continue drone attacks, he said. “The situation would have been altogether different had Pakistan been given the control of the trigger.”
Shahzad Raza is a journalist based in Islamabad. Follow him on Twitter @shahzadrez