For many living in Pakistan, Trump’s administration will be remembered as a respite from drone strikes, and from the war in Afghanistan.Michaela Stone Cross
You can practically feel it: all across the world, people are holding their breath, waiting for the nuclear codes to be handed over to President-elect Joe Biden, and taken away from Donald Trump. With Biden comes a return to the Obama legacy, one many associate with stability and technocratic competence. There are exceptions, however: Pakistan, America’s long-standing frenemy, enjoyed better relations during the last four years, as tensions eased, the drone program slowed to a trickle, and an optics-heavy bromance bloomed between Trump and Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“I am not a big fan of Obama,” said Nasar Ahmad, a 36-year-old lawyer from Lahore. “I think his suits are much nicer. He's got the Harvard finesse of course...But if it comes down to policy, and if it comes down to who did less damage to Pakistan, I'd say Trump, he probably did less damage. Biden is not Obama and he’s coming into a very different climate. But there are concerns that there might be more of the same-old-same-old.”
American-Pakistani relations have rarely been good, with polls showing that the citizens of both countries share a mutual distrust. But after a drone-happy Obama administration, it’s understandable why Trump may have been a breath of fresh air for many Pakistanis — while Trump escalated drone warfare in countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Somalia, in Pakistan, there were only six confirmed strikes over the last four years, a 16-year low. In Pakistan, people often prefer Republican administrations to Democratic ones, and Trump’s efforts to begin peace negotiations in Afghanistan and his offer to broker a deal between Pakistan and India over Kashmir struck a chord with many. Biden, meanwhile, has picked Avril D. Haines as his director of national intelligence — the architect of Obama’s drone program, and a reminder of the height of airstrikes in northwest Pakistan.
“I remember the first conversation I had with my [American] friend about Barack Obama: he was in shock,” said Makdhum Karam, a 20-year-old student at George Washington University. “He was like, ‘How can you hate Obama?’ I felt like he wanted to say I was racist. But he couldn’t, since I’m Brown myself.”
Karam associates the Obama years with his time growing up in Lahore, where protests against the drone strikes were common, as was news of domestic terrorist attacks. “You’d just come home from school, and your mom would be watching television,” said Karam. “The news would just be drones, and this many innocent people killed.” He remembers watching, at age 13, a boy from North Waziristan testify to Congress that he was afraid of blue skies: that’s when the drones would come.
“The drone program was accelerated only because the American side felt that Pakistan was not taking out or dealing with a large number of terrorists who posed a threat to the United States in Afghanistan as well as internationally,” said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. during the Obama administration. “And when positive identification was possible, they dealt with them through drones.”
Drone strikes, which the second Bush administration pioneered and Obama accelerated during his term, occur only in a small, remote section of northwestern Pakistan: Waziristan, which lies within the formerly semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), an area occupied by underrepresented minorities with little access to the internet. The drone program is as distant for many living in Karachi as it is for those living in New York: the information comes from news outlets alone, much of which American and Pakistani governments have obscured.
“In Karachi, it’s not like drone strikes were a visible thing,” said Mehtab Mohammad*, a 26-year-old student from Karachi. “The relationship [between America and Pakistan] itself is so opaque, it doesn't affect the Pakistani life, as much as it does the news. There may be protests and yes, you could see the security situation be a bit tense for a few days, but that’s it.”
According to one poll in 2012, only 55% of Pakistani respondents had heard about drone strikes. Of those who had, 75% called them “unnecessary,” and 97% “bad.” Yet some suggest that those living in drone-affected areas are most supportive of the program. One study conducted by political scientist Aqil Shah in North Waziristan in 2015 found that of 147 residents, 79% endorsed drones, 64% believed that drone strikes accurately targeted militants, and 56% believed drone strikes seldom killed non-militants. Many trusted drones more than the Pakistani army.
“The common perspective and perception about drones in FATA, now [part of] Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is that the drones really strike the militants and the Pakistani military, they strike common people,” said Hamza Khan*, a 56-year-old Pashtun nationalist in Peshawar. “The drones have been really precise, and almost all the big-name terrorists we know have been killed in drone strikes.”
“The drone program was effective in taking out some leaders of the Pakistan Taliban,” said Madiha Afzal, a researcher at Brookings and author of Pakistan Under Siege. “It took out Baitullah Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud and took out Fazlullah, and many Al-Qaeda fighters who had moved over to Pakistan from Afghanistan after 2001…It did, however, have an effect on perceptions.”
“Why we should vote for President Trump,” reads one Urdu poster from Pakistan. “President Trump harbors good sentiments for Pakistan and Pakistanis. No Muslim country was attacked during President Trump's term. The course of drone attacks in Pakistan ended during his administration. President Trump also aims to resolve the Kashmir conflict.”
Trump has no aversion to drone warfare. He used the same law exploited by the Obama administration — the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Act — to unilaterally wage war in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, overturning the little amount of transparency formerly required. While the number of drone strikes and civilian casualties are uncertain — the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a watchdog organization, counted at least 11,766 drone strikes in Afghanistan during the last four years, nine times that of the Obama years. Drone warfare in Pakistan slowed down because the situation changed: American soldiers left Afghanistan, reducing the need for “force protection” strikes, militants fled across the border, and al-Qaeda’s network within Pakistan was destroyed.
Both the American and Pakistani governments have obscured information. America is unwilling to admit the number of civilian casualties, while Pakistan refuses to admit agreeing to the program at all.
“There was a tacit agreement,” said Haqqani. “During the [Pervez] Musharraf era...explicit agreement had been given in the CIA to notify Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, about each drone strike. As the public unwillingness of Pakistan to acknowledge its acquiescence to the strikes increased, the Americans became less diligent about notifying Pakistan prior to strikes, although post-strike notifications continued.”
Like Islamophobia, anti-Americanism remains a powerful electoral tool. Pakistan’s leaders maintain something of a toxic covert relationship with the U.S.: condemning it publicly, while courting it behind closed doors.
“Pakistan's leaders always have a policy of trying to portray the United States as an overbearing ally or friend, without sharing with the people of Pakistan what Pakistan's leaders tell Americans in private,” said Haqqani. “So Pakistan has depended on America for assistance and aid, but never acknowledged that to its own people. And so that plays into anti-American sentiment.”
According to Haqqani, Pakistani leaders would remain quiet after strikes that benefited the administration and the complex tangle of alliances that holds together Pakistan’s balance of power. When, however, strikes targeted Taliban targets with ties to the ISI, Pakistani leaders would publicly condemn the attacks.
“The mantra of ‘civilian casualties’ has been promoted by the Pakistani media at the behest of the state,” said Khan.
There are undoubtedly civilian casualties: the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates between 424 to 969 civilians and 172 to 207 children have been killed in Pakistan between 2004 to 2018. Furthermore, there is much disagreement as to who is considered a civilian: the Obama administration effectively counted all military-aged males as combatants, while the Trump administration stopped counting deaths at all. But the Pakistani government, some argue, will claim “civilian casualties” only when it suits their political aims.
“It was an irony that some of the drones actually flew from American bases within Pakistan,” said Haqqani. The government, he claims, would call for protests after certain strikes. “Basically, the protests were for domestic consumption. And the acquiescence was a political and diplomatic decision, aimed at taking bad actors off the battlefield, terrorists who posed a threat both to Pakistan and the U.S.”
While Osama bin Laden was no ally to the Pakistani government, America’s decision not to inform Pakistan’s leaders about their military operation was an embarrassment to Pakistan’s leaders, and bin Laden’s proximity to the country’s largest military base was an international disgrace. Pakistan’s leaders found it expedient to condemn American encroachment — Prime Minister Imran Khan rose to power in 2018. His introduction to Trump was during a bitter Twitter feud, where Trump accused Pakistan of offering nothing but “lies and deceit” before the U.S. dramatically cut foreign aid to Pakistan.
“The relationship started off on such a terrible footing that maybe the only way to go was up from the low of 2018,” said Afzal. Trump was convinced that Pakistan’s cooperation was necessary to withdraw from Afghanistan, and so he did a 180, giving Khan a warm reception in Washington, D.C. “Imran Khan and Trump really hit it off,” said Afzal. “Both celebrities-turned-politicians, both populists who are very privileged, personally.”
Khan’s warm reception was a powerful message. Pakistan receives few visits from world leaders due to perceived security risks, and therefore has fewer opportunities for grip-and-grins with American presidents. “There is that sense of international isolation that we might not recognize consciously,” said Mohammad. “But when people saw Imran Khan and Trump engage, it felt like the country was breaking out of its isolation, and that it was a big player in the region.”
Unlike Obama, Trump dropped the kind of “human rights” language that came across as hypocritical, threatening and condescending to a population cynical about American aims. “Trump being crude or indifferent about human rights, or supporting dictators...for Pakistanis it felt like the cloak of American foreign policy was off,” said Mohammad. “‘This is just business as usual, except he's open about it.’”
“The Obama administration committed itself to trying to change Pakistan's national security paradigm,” said Haqqani. Obama offered a $7.5 billion civilian aid package to Pakistan, strictly under the conditions that Pakistan cease to aid militants. Trump’s administration, however, sought not to address long-standing problems but prioritized short-term goals such as a peace deal with the Taliban. “[Obama’s] approach was to use carrots and sticks to try and persuade Pakistan to stop…considering India a permanent enemy…The Trump administration adopted a more transactional approach.”
Peace talks with the Taliban were popular with Pakistan’s government, as was Trump’s offer to negotiate the settlement with Kashmir. But the peace talks are ongoing, Trump’s recently de-classified “Indo Pacific Strategy” called for closer ties to India and made no mention of Pakistan. The offer to negotiate peace with Kashmir may have backfired — several days later, India revoked Kashmir’s special status, putting it under martial law.
“I personally feel that the Biden administration will be a lot more nuanced than the past few administrations,” said Haqqani, noting that key members like future Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, CIA director William Burns, and secretary of state Antony Blinken have made clear statements regarding Pakistan’s importance. “Unlike the Obama administration, the Biden administration will not spend too much time and energy trying to get Pakistan to change its strategic calculus.” But the relationship will not be transactional. “They will continue to press on certain themes relating to democracy and human rights.”
All evidence points to Biden continuing the drone program — whether this will affect Pakistan is uncertain. Biden has voiced his support of drone warfare, pushed for drones instead of troops in America’s Afghanistan strategy, and hired the architect of the Obama administration’s program as director of intelligence. For a U.S. president, Biden knows Pakistan well — he has traveled there, and was one of the advocates of Obama’s civilian aid bill.
“When the United States and China established normal relations in 1972, we were the ones who sort of facilitated that whole thing,” said Karam. “Maybe Pakistan could calm those tensions down.”
“I think, in the long run, it's better for the U.S. to have a more holistic relationship,” said Mohammad. “I don't know if that can happen with the Biden administration, because the focus will be on China, on helping India's growth as a counterweight.”
“I would be curious to see what lens the Biden administration takes towards Pakistan,” said Afzal. “ Is it going to be an Af[ghanistan]-Pak[istan] lens? Is it going to be a Pak[istan]-India lens? Is it going to be a Pakistan on its own lens?”
Whatever happens, one thing is almost certain: strategy debates, when they do occur, will be at the negotiation table — and not on Twitter.
Michaela Stone Cross is a staff writer at The Juggernaut.
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