Will US Use Punjab Governor’s Death as Pretext for More Drone Attacks?

On Tuesday morning, the reports of Salman Taseer’s assassination topped headlines around the world. Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, had been killed by one of his own security guards in a market in Islamabad. The assassination comes amidst mounting political chaos in Pakistan, marked by the instability of the government’s ruling coalition and the increasing prominence of Islamist opposition to the country’s secular leaders. 

In its initial coverage of these developments, the mainstream press has drawn attention to many issues, including the price of fuel, which was the immediate cause of the defection of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, from Prime Minister Gilani’s ruling coalition, and Taseer’s opposition to a blasphemy law, which imposes a death sentence against those who insult Islam. But one thing the mainstream press has not addressed is the U.S. war in the Af-Pak region. Following the coverage of Taseer’s death, you would not even know that such a war existed. 

This is a remarkable omission in light of how the strategic focus of the U.S./NATO war has shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan in the last year, as evidenced by the latest progress report on the war and the current pressures being placed on Pakistan to cooperate with the U.S. agenda. In 2010, there were 118 drone attacks along the border between Afghan and Pakistan, mostly in North Waziristan, more than double the number in 2009.

What Guardian reporter Mehdi Hasan and others have called “the year of the drone” was neglected by The New York Times, which did not even report the drone attacks that killed over 65 people in the last ten days of 2010.

Although readers of the Times may not have the full story, the drone attacks and the U.S. influence on the ruling coalition are a key part of Pakistan’s political landscape. At a recent press conference in Peshawar, Nek Zaman, who heads the group Jamiar Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) in the federally administered tribal areas, denounced the drone war, which killed 800 civilians in the last year: “Those claiming to be part of the civilized world and human rights organizations should take note of the gross violation of human rights and killing of innocent women, children and elderly and raise their voices for an immediate halt to the drone attacks.”

JUI-F is just the latest political group in Pakistan to condemn the drone attacks. By most accounts, the Pakistani populace opposes the U.S. intervention and the ruling coalition that supports it. They see it not only as an attack on their sovereignty, but also an act of humiliation against Muslims.

On Monday, State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley insisted that the current parliamentary crisis is about “internal politics within Pakistan.” If only the line between domestic and foreign policy were that clear. As Anatol Lieven wrote in The Nation, U.S. pressure on Pakistan has contributed to the instability of the Pakistani state. According to Lieven, it has also contributed to the rise of Islamism within Pakistan: “More than any other factor, it is our campaign in Afghanistan that has radicalized Pakistanis and turned many of them not only against the West but against their own government and ruling system. In the worst case, the consequence of Western actions could be to destroy Pakistan as a state and produce a catastrophe that would reduce the problems in Afghanistan to insignificance by comparison.”

In the days ahead, official spokespeople and supporters of the unofficial surge in Pakistan will no doubt condemn Taseer’s assassination, lament the rise of Islamist sentiment in Pakistan, and emphasize the importance of stability there. In hawkish national security circles, the assassination will serve as cause for increasing the U.S. military presence in order to ensure stability in the region. In Tea Party circles, a new round of anti-Muslim speak will use Taseer’s death to support claims about the dangers of radical Islam to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. None of this rhetoric will acknowledge the role of the U.S. in fostering the very climate it claims to be fighting against.    

If these voices have their way, the drones will go on and Lindsey Graham will have his wish of permanent bases in Afghanistan fulfilled. 

It’s curious how the power of U.S. foreign policy to disrupt and destabilize the Af-Pak region can be so de-emphasized while at the same time its power to change the region for the better can be so exaggerated.