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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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.