The debate over U.S. drone strikes against militants in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has risen in intensity over the past few weeks, following a highly critical report on the strikes’ impact on the region’s civilian population as well as last week’s anti-drone “peace march” to the FATA. However, the focus on drones is unhelpful and legitimizes a narrative that mischaracterizes the real problems in Pakistan. The use of drones is a reaction to militancy that is the product of historical and systemic failures in governance in Pakistan. By making drones the focus of attention, Pakistani institutions can evade responsibility for their own failings. This allows Pakistani politicians to continue exploiting a deep well of anti-Americanism for self-gain and the powerful military to continue obscuring its role in the many injustices in governance and security that drive poverty, illiteracy and violence across the country. Meanwhile, radical mullahs continue raising new generations of jihadis.
It is important to acknowledge that U.S. drone strikes are indeed killing Pakistani civilians, even if nobody knows how many, and not just because of the moral issues these deaths raise. In addition to fueling cycles of revenge, civilian deaths also feed rumor mills that allow Pakistan’s deep state -- the military and its powerful intelligence, media and business affiliates -- to thrive. In Pakistan, conspiracy theories involving America, India, Mossad and Blackwater have replaced credible answers to the country’s many failures, and drones are their iconic symbol.
Though drones are not ideal, they are the best means of achieving a specific tactical task: killing high-value terrorists in areas beyond the reach of the Pakistani state in ways that are more precise than the available alternatives. Many of those killed by drone strikes were indeed al-Qaida operatives. Others were senior militants of the Haqqani, Nazir and Bahadur networks that kill American troops in Afghanistan, yet are protected by the Pakistani state for their strategic value as "good Taliban" in post-2014 Afghanistan. Others, such as Baitullah Mehsud, Nek Mohammed and Ilyas Kashmiri, were notorious for the amount of Pakistani blood they had spilled, but were for years beyond the reach of Pakistani security services.