Drone attacks: what is America doing in Pakistan?

Seventeen people have died in US drone attacks in Waziristan. What is the impact on civilians?

Seventeen people have been killed in two US drone attacks in North Waziristan, a tribal area and Taliban stronghold in Pakistan. The body count is still growing from the attacks, targeted at a compound alleged to be a militant training camp.

These latest attacks are part of an expansion authorised by Barack Obama last month, in line with the troop surge in Afghanistan. It's a policy that is anything but transparent.

For the uninitiated -- what is going on? Well, the first attacks were launched by George Bush in 2004 as part of the "war on terror". They feature unmanned aerial vehicles firing Hellfire missiles (that's actually what they're called, I'm not embellishing) at militant targets (well, vaguely), and have increased in frequency since 2008.

Top US officials are extremely enthusiastic about the drone attacks. They stated in March 2009 that the strikes had killed nine of al-Qaeda's 20 top commanders. High-profile successes such as the death of Baitullah Mehsud, the former Taliban commander in Pakistan, have no doubt given further encouragement. The attacks' status in international law is dubious but, hey, when has that ever been a concern?

Yet in terms of how the Pakistani public might receive it, it is an incredibly reckless policy for the US to pursue, and for the discredited Islamabad administration to allow.

Since the strikes were stepped up in mid-2008, hundreds of people have been killed, many of them civilians. The American think tank the Brookings Institution released a report in July 2008 saying that ten civilians perished in the attacks for every single militant killed. The UN Human Rights Council, too, delivered a highly critical report last year. The investigator Philip Alston called on the US to justify its policy:

Otherwise you have the really problematic bottom line, which is that the Central Intelligence Agency is running a programme that is killing significant numbers of people and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international laws.

Islamabad has publicly criticised the attacks on Pakistani territory as being counterproductive (though reports abound about the level of its complicity). Pakistan's foreign ministry today issued an angry statement saying that US and Nato forces "need to play their role inside Afghanistan".

Pakistan is a state on the verge of collapse. Amid poverty, the instability engendered by frequent terrorist attacks, and a corrupt and fragile government, the very extremism that the west's cack-handed Af-Pak strategy aims to counter has fertile ground on which to grow.

The Pakistani public is overwhelmingly and consistently opposed to the drone attacks. A poll for al-Jazeera in August 2009 showed that 67 per cent of respondents "oppose drone attacks by the United States against the Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan". A poll in October for the International Republican Institute found that 73 per cent of respondents opposed US military incursions into the tribal areas and 76 per cent did not think that Pakistan and the US should partner to carry out drone attacks.

The "war on terror" is an increasingly meaningless phrase. But one thing is certain: as young Britons travel to Pakistan expressly for to attend training camps (frequently spurred on, I would argue, by their anger at western foreign policy) and the Taliban continue to expand across the country, we cannot -- to employ another overused phrase -- afford to lose any more "hearts and minds". The escalation of drone attacks does just that.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser