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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.