Transparent inquiry into cross-border attack in Pakistan promised: but what about the drones?


The US State Department’s commitment to make public “in some fashion” the US Central Command (Centcom) led inquiry into the cross-border attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers is a welcome boost for transparency. The investigation is expected to look at “the full range of factors that contributed to this tragedy and it will be broad, expansive and thorough,” says Centcom.

Efforts are still continuing to bring Pakistan on board for a joint investigation into the attacks and there is no official timeframe for the completion of the inquiry. But with Pakistan’s army chief authorizing troops to fire back against future attacks across the Afghan border, there is an urgent need to improve communications, both real-time (in order to reduce the risk of such border incidents occurring) and high-level (to minimise any future incidents escalating into an all-out war between Afghanistan, the US and Pakistan).

A key related issue that shows no sign of emerging from the shadows any time soon, however, is the US-led drone war. Although US nationals are starting to vacate the Shamsi airbase in Pakistan, reportedly used by CIA-operated drones to target ‘militants’ in Pakistan's restive tribal belt, other drone launching and staging capabilities are set to take its place. The US inquiry may hope to quell some of the anti-NATO sentiment that has continued to spread throughout Pakistan as a result of the “friendly fire” incident, but unless it also addresses the larger question of drone attacks it is only likely to be a temporary palliative.

There needs to be an urgent debate within NATO, and especially the United States, as to whether military forces, covert or overt, should be engaged in Pakistan. The drone attacks, which are the core of US military activity in Pakistan, remain so ‘secret’ that US government officials refuse even to confirm that such a programme exists. Since everybody knows that it does, this fig-leaf of deniability enables US and Pakistani officials to routinely hide from their electorates the consequences of these so-called ‘precision’ drone attacks. 

This is exactly how conflicts spin out of control: with both sides making claims about who was at fault when things go wrong. And as the Bureau for Investigative Journalism has documented things do routinely go wrong with at least 175 children killed by these strikes. One was a boy named Tariq Aziz, who had volunteered to learn photography to begin documenting drone strikes near his home. Within 72 hours of attending a public meeting in Islamabad to discuss the impact of US drone strikes in their communities, Tariq was killed by such a strike. He was 16 years old. His 12-year-old cousin was also killed. The 174th and 175th documented child casualties in this ‘secret’ war.

NATO needs to consider the human above the technology: the time to devise limits on the use of armed drones has long since passed.