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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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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