Divorcing the Drones

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All the talk in Pakistan in the weeks before the U.S election was about divorce. The question posed to the two candidates in the last presidential debate—“Is it time for us to divorce Pakistan?”—had stunned most Pakistanis, who had not thought themselves wed to the superpower they love to hate. The candidates’ responses provided little solace; neither responded by denying a marital relationship. The reasons they offered for saving the marriage however, were just as unsatisfactory. There were no professions of unexpressed affection, no furtive declarations of passion—just this from Governor Romney “No, it’s not time to divorce a nation on earth that has a hundred nuclear weapons…” President Obama never directly answered the question at all. Both candidates agreed that the remote-controlled annihilation directed at this wayward spouse, assumed to be sleeping with untold others, must continue.

There was a high degree of attention heaped on the American election in the country that has been battered by 298 drone strikes in Obama’s first four years in office. The battle between President Obama and Governor Romney commanded all headlines, with newspapers and television channels running well-researched spreads on the intricacies of the electoral college and the mechanics of U.S. presidential elections. It was much like the perverse interest estranged spouses may take in the continuing details of a lost love’s doings. Nothing will change, insisted commentator after commentator, each one enumerating all the sufferings the abusive and hurtful United States has heaped upon Pakistan.

The focus on U.S. politics was not the result of a lack of headline-making crises in Pakistan, including the country’s ongoing drone-related woes. Not only did such attacks not cease during the breathless last weeks of the campaigns, but a few days before the election the Supreme Court of Pakistan issued a stern directive relating directly to the detritus left by drone bombings. The decision had to do with Karachi, whose security, the Court affirmed, was severely compromised after the arrival and infiltration of thousands of Tehreek-e-Taliban members to the southern city.

Their arrival, however, is not news in Karachi itself—a city that averages eight to ten targeted killing each day, felling everyone from businessmen to political activists to Shia religious leaders declared heretics by the Taliban. As the results of the election were rolling in the day after the election, sixteen people were killed in Karachi. If further droves of those fleeing drone attacks in the north head to Karachi, it is only likely to intensify the conflict, with neither the local government nor the one in Islamabad able to do much. It makes sense for Taliban leaders and other militants to hide in this city of 18 million, where high-flying drones cannot single them out.

In the end, it was not the candidate that won the American election but the one who lost that commanded Pakistani attention. Geo Television, one of Pakistan’s most watched TV networks, presented side by side a clip of Mitt Romney conceding defeat to President Obama and a clip of a recent provincial election in Pakistan, where a candidate alleging vote-rigging slapped polling staff. Could Pakistan produce a leader who could so graciously accept defeat? asked the Pakistani television program. Then again, said Kamran Khan, another popular television talk show host on the same channel, Pakistan does not even have a date for its next election, let alone a forecast of its winners or losers. The date of the next American presidential election is already known, he reminded Pakistani viewers.

Whether Pakistanis can still take democratic lessons from the United States is difficult to tell. The belabored metaphor of a strained marital relationship may well dominate again. Warring spouses, after all, are often good people in their own right, but who fail to see the goodness in the other and repeat the same old hurtful patterns. The U.S. government in Obama’s second term will continue to believe that remote-control killing can erase the political costs of war, producing some valuable dividends in American security. Pakistanis will remain caught in a masochistic anti-imperialism, with a hatred for the United States that can bleed into a blind hatred of democracy itself.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN, Pakistan’s largest English newspaper. She is an attorney and human rights activist whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times, the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.

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