Pakistan has reacted angrily to reports that Barack Obama will continue authorising American drone strikes in the tribal regions of Northwest Pakistan. Since the American invasion of Afghanistan, much of the Taliban hierarchy has fled across the Pakistani border, primarily into the Waziristan region. Here they have joined Al-Qaeda leaders supportive of their former regime, in addition to members of the Pakistani Taliban.
The American drone programme in Pakistan has accelerated enormously under the Obama administration and has achieved significant strategic success, wiping out large sections of the Al-Qaeda leadership and seriously weakening the preeminent terrorist group. Of course, such strategic victories have come at considerable “collateral” losses. Hundreds of innocent Pakistani civilians have been killed, a price forcibly paid for the enhancement of global security.
This strategic bombing campaign, carried out in a country the United States is not at war with, is reminiscent of another highly controversial period in American history. During the Vietnam War, the US Air Force carpet-bombed Laos and Cambodia, both of whose official governments (the Kingdom of Laos and the Khmer Republic) were supposedly American allies. As with the War in Afghanistan, the conflict spilled over into these adjacent states. The Pathet Lao and the Khmer Rouge, operating in Laos and Cambodia respectively, lent support to the communist Vietcong and provided important supply routes for munitions destined to oppose American troops.
As is commonplace in Northwestern Pakistan today, the American bombing campaign beyond the official borders of conflict during the Vietnam War came at a significant human cost. Thousands of Cambodian and Laotian civilians, by no means all communists, were killed either by high explosives or herbicidal warfare. Even today, Laos and Cambodia remain plagued by Unexploded Bombs (UXB) and hundreds of farmers are maimed by the detonation of UXBs every year.
America did not win the Vietnam War and, indeed, it is hard to make a case against its defeat. This simple fact means that the human sacrifice of Laos and Cambodia was catastrophically futile and no justification can be made for the strategic bombing campaign in those countries (particularly knowing the subsequent success of the brutal Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge in seizing control of their countries).
So, what of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Of course, we are not simply considering one enemy in this case, as we were with the communist forces of Southeast Asia. The American targets in Pakistan are twofold; Taliban and Al-Qaeda. That said, when American withdraws from Afghanistan in the coming couple of years, how will the success of the drone campaign be judged? Will it be on the difficulty of the Taliban retaking control of Afghanistan, something many analysts think is a foregone conclusion? Or will it be on the continuing decline in the potency of Al-Qaeda? Indeed, it is likely that even after America’s forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the drone strikes will persist.
The relative decline of Al-Qaeda is not to be sniffed at. Drone strikes have taken affect by crippling the group’s leadership (in conjunction with the infamous Abbottobad raid). Who is to say that without these strikes, thousands more civilians would be lying dead in the streets of the Western world?
However, the exchange of innocent civilian lives in Pakistan for potential civilian lives in the West is an unfair one. It is this sort of arrogant and brazen behaviour that has failed America in the past. After all, the term “hearts and minds” received its first real credence during the Vietnamese War as the Americans lost the faith of the local people with campaigns such as those conducted in Laos and Cambodia.
For peace and security in the Middle East, the Americans need to engage in a constructive multilateral dialogue with regional powers that negates the endangering of innocent lives wherever possible. I do not doubt the difficulty of this endeavour, and am convinced that drone strikes are only authorised on the assumption that civilian casualties will be minimised, but the Americans can’t do it alone. They need the support of Pakistan, whose government desperately needs to start acting with the responsibility incumbent of its stature and, in particular, tribal leaders in Waziristan to avoid a repeat of Vietnam where the spillover of conflict into virgin warzones seriously damaged the credibility of the occupying American forces. How attainable, and desirable, this scenario is for the Americans remains to be seen.