Rob Crilly: Time for straight talking on drone strikes in Pakistan

THERE are some things it is really best not to mention when you are the newly appointed American ambassador to Islamabad. The CIA's covert drone programme is one such thing, as Cameron Munter, Washington's new man in Pakistan, has just discovered.

The drones, of course, are hardly a secret. It is difficult to camouflage a policy that frequently destroys homes and vehicles, and continues to leave a trail of death through Pakistan's lawless tribal areas.

The locals tend to notice that sort of thing, and the Pakistani national newspapers pick over all the gory details while telling their readers every Hellfire missile launched converts another handful of disillusioned tribesmen into militants.

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Websites update their strike lists on an almost daily basis. The latest running total for this year is 96, according to Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann's drones database at the New America Foundation - a new annual record.

And passengers on planes waiting to take off from Jalalabad airfield in Afghanistan report having to wait on the Tarmac for cockpit-less Predators to rise eerily into the air from the runway on their way to the border with Pakistan.

The drones are no secret. But such is the awkward nature of the alliance between Pakistan and the US, particularly when it comes to tackling extremism, that speaking the truth often has to take second place to keeping the relationship working.

Mr Munter is learning this the hard way. The inevitable question came up during his first week in post, during a whistlestop tour to Karachi.

"Drone attacks are part of the war against terrorism, and are being carried out only against the common enemy of Pakistan and the US," was his answer carried in the Pakistani press last weekend.

Far from representing a new era of openness, his comments sparked a furious reaction from US officials in Washington. Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's special envoy to the region, delivered a telephone carpeting to diplomats in Islamabad warning them of the potential damage done to a fragile alliance in a country where anti-Western sentiment is commonplace.

Mr Munter's comments expose the hypocrisy of both countries in their public stances towards the other. The Pakistan government and its military are always quick to condemn the drones, complaining in public that the strikes are "unhelpful" in the strategic aim of defeating the ideology that drives the militants.

In private though it is quite another matter.

As Bob Woodward spells out in his recent book Obama's Wars, the Pakistan government could not be more supportive of the policy. According to his account of a meeting between Pakistan's then new president, Asif Ali Zardari, and the CIA director to discuss the programme in 2008, the Americans came away with an unequivocal green light.

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Pakistan needs the drones.The government and military have woken up to the monster they created by supporting Jihadi groups against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan and against Indian forces in Kashmir. The Pakistan Taleban is now a threat to the country that once nurtured it, and Islamabad needs all the help it can get.

But the politicians are not quite ready to acknowledge the fact. Pakistan in 2010 is not a country where political leaders win power by promising closer co-operation with the West. In fact, its recent history is a story of prime ministers and military dictators using the Islamification of a secular state to cement their position.

Against that backdrop, the easiest way to win support is to pledge opposition to the drones and to the West in general.

The result is a public discourse dominated by only one worldview: the US invaded Afghanistan in pursuit of its own ends and has co-opted Pakistan's weak political leadership into Washington's war, killing hundreds of innocent Pakistanis as the drones comb the skies.

The alternative view, that Pakistan is a key ally of the West and both sides need each other if they are to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taleban, exists. It is just not being articulated on the streets or in the newspaper comment pages, leaving the way clear for the conspiracy theorists and the rabble-rousers.

If extremism in Pakistan is to be defeated, we need the moderate narrative spelled out. Telling the truth about drones would be a good start.