What’s worse — drone strikes or shooting little girls?

Prominent Pakistani politicians refuse to condemn hit on Malala Yousafzai

By Nicholas Nehamas

Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai on a stretcher outside a hospital in Pakistan after being shot by a Taliban gunman. (Reuters)

The Taliban shoots 14-year old girls in the head. America kills Pakistani children with errant drone strikes.

Is there a difference?

The entire nation of Pakistan has been considering that question since an extremist militant boarded a school bus last week and tried to assassinate Malala Yousafzai, a young activist whose only “crime” was saying girls should read.

Yes, the Taliban meant to do it and America didn’t. But leaving important questions of intentionality aside, the end result is the same: dead children. And there’s evidence to suggest the U.S. has squandered any pro-American sentiment that existed in the region. We might just be creating the next generation of terrorists.

In the right-leaning Pakistani newspaper The Nation, executive editor M.A. Niazi sees a parallel between drone strikes and the attempt on Malala’s life.

While I sympathise with Malala’s parents, being a parent myself, can I [also] sympathise with the parents of the drone attack victims? Someone should remember that they are also some mother’s sons. And some victims have been children. Which the USA insists were terrorists. Just as the Taliban insist that Malala deserved (and still deserves) death. While there is much outrage at the Taliban, how about some outrage at the drone strikes?

It’s a viewpoint shared by politicians and clerics in Pakistan. One far-right leader recently asked, “We condemn [the attack on Malala], but who will condemn drone strikes?”

It’s almost impossible to verify how many civilians die in drone attacks meant to target terrorist leaders. The Pakistani military forbids foreign journalists from entering tribal areas — where most of the strikes occur and where Malala lived — without permission. Hostile Islamic militias make it difficult for local reporters to move around freely.

But a study by researchers at Stanford and NYU suggests that drones killed around 3,300 people between 2004 to 2012. Of those anywhere from 474 and 881 were civilians; 66 were senior Taliban commanders. The study also reported that the drone strikes “terrorise” Pakistani civilians, causing severe insomnia and PTSD in survivors. However, critics point out that the study was commissioned by Reprieve, a UK-based charity that advocates against drones.

Walking a fine line

In fact, Reprieve’s chairman, Clive Stafford-Smith, currently campaigns with Imran Khan, a popular candidate in Pakistan’s next presidential elections, who strongly opposes drones. Khan is probably his country’s greatest hero, having led Pakistan to its only cricket World Cup title in 1992.

A Pakistani woman at a rally for Malala carries a sign in support of America’s drone campaign. (Courtesy: www.dawn.com)

Despite his reputation as a Westernized playboy, Khan has returned to his Muslim roots since entering politics. He recently claimed the insurgency in Afghanistan is a jihad justifiable under Islamic law. He has also refused to condemn the Taliban by name for shooting Malala, saying he fears reprisals.

But not everyone in Pakistan is afraid to stand up to the extremists.

On Sunday thousands of people rallied against the attack on Malala, whom one politician called “a beacon of knowledge.” He also referred to her Taliban assailants as “beasts.”

In Lahore, 50 Islamic clerics issued a fatwa against Malala’s attackers, saying the Taliban is “repugnant to the teachings of Islam.”

And some Pakistani journalists are resisting what they see as hardline equivocation between drone strikes and the attack on Malala. An editorial in the moderate newspaper Dawn made the case that such an argument is a “skewed narrative.”

Let’s get one thing straight about the attack on Malala Yousufzai. It is not comparable to drone strikes. Nor is it comparable to other incidents the religious right might use to try to divert attention from the particular evil of this one. Because here is what this incident was: a deliberate attack on a specific teenage girl in retaliation for her activism for girls’ education and opposition to Islamist militancy, a harmless, non-violent cause the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan happen not to like. Drone strikes may be unacceptable in their current form and end up killing innocent children, but doing so is not their intent.

The piece goes on to criticize religious leaders and even secular political parties for not denouncing the Taliban.

Malala, meanwhile, has been flown from Pakistan to Britain, where she requires serious medical care.

It’s unclear if it will ever be safe for her to live in the land of her birth.