A delegation of American peace activists has succeeded in directly engaging the US ambassador to Pakistan over the drone attacks, which have killed civilians and inflamed anti-US opinion in South Asia and around the globe. A video of the meeting between the delegation, organized by Code Pink, and US ambassador Robert Hoagland was posted October 3.
The drone policy is opposed by groups as diverse as Code Pink activists, counter-insurgency experts at the Long War Journal and the New America Foundation. They are seen by the Obama administration as inflicting serious damage on insurgent sanctuaries as the US gradually withdraws troops from Afghanistan. From a political viewpoint, the drone strikes result in few American casualties and are invisible to a public addicted to television.
A fierce information war is underway over competing calculations of civilian casualties, with the CIA claiming a "yearlong perfect record" and independent researchers counting in the hundreds. Left out of the body count debate is the political-diplomatic impact, which has added immeasurably to public rage in Pakistan, Afghanistan and across the Islamic world, while at the same time diluting potential peace sentiment in the United States.
The image of the United States as a merciless Zeus inflicting death from the sky is undoubtedly unsettling for many Americans, especially those in faith communities. During the Vietnam War, for example, the mass killing of innocents sparked massive moral concern, horrifying television coverage and civil disobedience by many leaders of the clergy.
Perhaps anticipating an inevitable public reaction, President Obama this year lifted the secret veil from the drone program and welcomed a "conversation." In that vein, Ambassador Hoagland spent significant time with the American peace delegation in Pakistan who are demonstrating against US policies. Apparently there was no accusation that the Americans were siding with the "enemy." While Hoagland defended the drone policy, he seemed to acknowledge the legitimacy of concerns about transparency, truth in numbers, civilian casualties, compensation for victims and other matters. His meeting with the Americans -- most of them often categorized in the media as "radical" activists -- was a success for engaged confrontation through citizen diplomacy.
Such citizen initiatives were valuable during the Vietnam and Central American wars, breaking the news media blackout, humanizing the face of the other side, resulting in prisoner releases and building lasting bonds of solidarity. Activists returned from battlefronts to strengthen the peace movement with urgent and vivid accounts of suffering in distant lands.
The power of the activist delegation rested in large part on their association with the massive march being led this weekend by Imran Kahn, the popular opposition leader, into the heart of South Waziristan.
The demand of the peace delegation is for an immediate moratorium on the drone attacks. Such a demand could be achievable if the US adopts a diplomatic strategy including talks with the Taliban and Pakistan, a limited cease-fire, and other steps towards power-sharing arrangements.
Following the 1960s and 1970s gestures of North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front, the insurgents in Pakistan could release the American POW, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, unconditionally, as a gesture of good will to the American delegation -- though not to the American government.
Currently, negotiations for Bergdahl's release are blocked by US Republicans who are opposed to the Obama administration releasing five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo.
It may be that citizen's diplomacy can help thaw a peace process now frozen by domestic politics.