Why Obama should be happy that the CIA is being sued

17 03 2011

Mirza Shahzad Akbar

To give you an idea: drone attacks are happening almost twice a week now on Pakistani soil. Karim Khan, a tribal man by origin and a journalist by profession, who is suing for his loss of blood in this attack had only two options when his innocent son and brother were killed in one of such drone attacks on December 31, 2009: to join Taliban’s war against US and take his revenge in a customary tribal way, or to call on due process, rule of law and judicial system of his state to get justice for the wrong done to him. The first option would have continued the cycle of terror, which we witness in the Land of the Pure in the shape of suicide attacks after every drone attack. Karim Khan chose the latter and following him, 15 more families have come forth to seek justice through proper legal means. It is time now for the US to respond to these grievances through legal means.

Under the authorization of the American President, drone attacks on Pakistani territory have been carried out by the CIA since 2004. This is an unprecedented move: a foreign government’s civilian organ has thus been allowed to carry out large-scale assaults on an independent and sovereign state without declaring war or acknowledging a conflict between two countries. There is a long list of breaches of international and domestic law that this involves, but this is not the impetus of this article.

In November 2010, Karim Khan initiated legal notices against the CIA and the US Secretary Defence for the wrongful death of his son and brother in drone attacks carried out in the North Waziristan Agency. Many expressed surprise at this move. However, rather than asking why someone is taking this step, the question should be why it did not happen before.

Further surprise came in the shape of an email received by a dear friend, which also highlight the faulty Western apprehension of terrorism and militancy in our region. This western friend, current McCloy Scholar at Harvard University with considerable international experience, displayed a mixture of condescension and ignorance as he wrote “I’m crossing my fingers that the process (legal action) will help address what I believe to be the really underlying question: Progress in the region cannot be made if Taliban and Al Qaeda are allowed safe havens in Pakistan, and drone attacks are the only way to attack these safe havens….’

What astounded me was the belief expressed by some Western scholars and politicians that drones are the only viable option of combating terrorism or militancy in tribal areas of Pakistan –experience and statistics tell a different story. The first drone attack was carried out in 2004 and had a specific target. This was true for all nine drone attacks that took place until 2007. However, identifying targets became shaky as the number of strikes increased. After President Obama’s oath of office, the drone attacks saw a sudden surge. In 2009, there were 53 attacks killing 709 people without State Department or CIA distinguishing between civilians and militants, as we have long forsaken the due process for such a declaration. 2010 saw over 113 attacks with death count of over 2000 human beings, again with no distinction between civilians and militants. As a result of this large-scale human cleansing, the US have only been able to achieve 31 high value targets, according to estimates by Steve Coll’s New American Foundation. We have seen that with every assassination of militant leaders, they have reemerged and been replaced with a more ferocious and extremist leader. Hakimullah is a prime example here.

Coinciding with the surge of drone missions, Pakistan has also been experiencing a spike in suicide attacks since 2006. This was not the first time, we had our first suicide attack in 1995 by a Egyptian national on the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad. There were a few more until 2006, but most of these attacks were sectarian or for some other specific motive always making a specific target. However, since 2006, the suicide attacks in Pakistan have been indiscriminate. Over 2100 were killed in 2010, without distinction between women, children civilians, law enforcement or military. In total, 6302 individuals have been reported as killed since 2008. The actual number is likely to be much higher.

The epic centre of all this chaos in our amidst, the US have given only over $11 billion in aid to Pakistan for its War on Terror since 2001 whereas in contrast the estimated damage to Pakistan due to terrorism crosses over $36 billion. A large portion of this damage is attributed to suicide attacks. The US’s own losses in Afghanistan – financial, human, and tactical – are unquantifiable. Over $6 billion have been spent since 2002 on establishing a viable Afghan National Police force, which the late Richard Holbrooke called ‘an inadequate force riddled with corruption’. Over $10 billions of American tax payers’ money have been spent on building Afghan National Army, which was termed by Wall Street Journal on July 28, 2010 largely illiterate, often corrupt, poorly led and addicted to opium, marijuana and heroin. The latest joint NATO and Afghan Operation Moshtrak in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in February 2010 failed miserably in achieving its aimed objectives of evicting Taliban and establishing a government in the district, despite the enormous budget and zeal of American strength behind it: a ground strength of 15,000 backed with helicopters and jets. Senator John Kerry concluded that the Moshtrak operation did not culminate into the turning point in Afghan operation as anticipated by the US and occupying forces.


This cycle of terror will continue until both sides start seeing sense and being adhering to the principles of due process, fair play, and rule of law. Through his legal action, Karim Khan has shown a new path to his kinsmen which ends violence, which is largely attributed to mistakes committed by the state in 1980’s along with the very same partner who is asking us to commit yet another folly. And I do not blame this ally when their scholars consider drone attacks their best strategy to win this war then God help them and those who blindly follow this strategy.


Mirza Shahzad Akbar is a practicing lawyer in Islamabad and also represents drone attack victims in their legal action against the USA. He can be contacted at mirzashahzadakbar@gmail.com





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