A Pakistani parliamentary commission demanded on Tuesday the end of drone strikes on its territory and a formal apology for past NATO airstrikes, as new terms for engagement with the U.S. were being drawn. Relations with the U.S. were virtually severed when a NATO airstrike in November killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The commission, convened to recommend how Pakistan can resume full diplomatic relations with the U.S., demands that the U.S. stop drone attacks in Pakistan. However, the use of drones has been at the core of the Obama administration’s strategy in Pakistan, and it is implausible that Washington will succumb to such a demand.
If the Pakistani parliament insists on the stoppage of drone strikes, it is likely to worsen relations with the U.S. instead of improving them. Instead, Pakistan should make realistic demands and negotiate with the U.S. to reduce drone strikes in the hope that this will lead to their total cessation at a later point.
Pakistanis are vehemently opposed to drone attacks because they harm innocent bystanders and threaten national security. The commission describes them as a “blatant violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Despite Pakistan’s opposition, President Barack Obama has defended the U.S. drone campaign, arguing that drones target active terrorists and not civilians. Under Obama, the frequency of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas has increased, from one every 40 days under the Bush administration to one every four days. While the moral and political implications of using drones have been thoroughly debated (see this article in The Economist), the U.S. has remained firm on its position and continued to use frequent drone strikes to target terrorists.
Pakistan’s parliament is in a precarious position. It receives billions of dollars every year in U.S. civil and military assistance, some of which has been withheld in recent months in the hope that Pakistan would be more cooperative with U.S. counter-terrorism measures. Making the impractical demand for the end of drone strikes, the central pillar of counter-terrorism, might lead to further denial of this aid and worsening relations with Washington.
At the same time, the U.S. is keen to resume diplomatic ties with Pakistan because it needs Pakistan’s support in the Afghanistan War. After the widespread public outrage over the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in the NATO air bombings in November, Pakistan closed supply routes between Pakistan and Afghanistan to U.S. troops. This forces NATO to transport its equipment and supplies through Central Asia. The commission recommends an unconditional apology for the November attacks and that Pakistan levy a transit tax on American military goods if these supply routes are re-opened. These demands are more realistic: the U.S. is likely to issue a formal apology for the November strikes and might be willing to accept a tax on the transport of supplies across the border.
The commission’s recommendations are not binding but have already sparked much debate. Pakistan’s parliament meets again on March 26 before deciding whether to accept them. Pakistan should focus on making practical demands and postpone more drastic ones to a time when diplomatic relations have improved. To do otherwise might permanently jeopardize its relationship with the U.S. and exacerbate instability in the region.
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