The Drone Debate
by Charles Lemos, Tue May 19, 2009 at 10:20:25 PM EDT
This past weekend in the New York Times, David Kilcullen and Andrew McDonald Exum wrote an op-ed questioning the use of Predator Drones in the war against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants inside Pakistan. While acknowledging that the use of the predator drones have three clear advantages (effects are measurable, militant networks have been disrupted, no American loss of life), Kilcullen and Exum argue that the costs outweigh the benefits for three reasons.
First, the drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians. This is similar to what happened in Somalia in 2005 and 2006, when similar strikes were employed against the forces of the Union of Islamic Courts. While the strikes did kill individual militants who were the targets, public anger over the American show of force solidified the power of extremists. The Islamists' popularity rose and the group became more extreme, leading eventually to a messy Ethiopian military intervention, the rise of a new regional insurgency and an increase in offshore piracy.
Second, public outrage at the strikes is hardly limited to the region in which they take place -- areas of northwestern Pakistan where ethnic Pashtuns predominate. Rather, the strikes are now exciting visceral opposition across a broad spectrum of Pakistani opinion in Punjab and Sindh, the nation's two most populous provinces. Covered extensively by the news media, drone attacks are popularly believed to have caused even more civilian casualties than is actually the case. The persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people's deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan's instability.
Third, the use of drones displays every characteristic of a tactic -- or, more accurately, a piece of technology -- substituting for a strategy. These attacks are now being carried out without a concerted information campaign directed at the Pakistani public or a real effort to understand the tribal dynamics of the local population, efforts that might make such attacks more effective.
Today in response, Bill Roggio who blogs over at The Long War Journal responded to Mssrs Kilcullen and Exum in a column at the Weekly Standard by noting that the "Predator campaign is one of the least bad options in a series of really bad options that exist in Pakistan" and that the use of the drones "is designed to keep al Qaeda's external network from striking in the West again."
I largely side with Riggio that the use of the predator drones are the least bad option - they are actually the only option that we fully control - even though I agree with Kilcullen & Exum that the use of drones is a tactic masquerading as a strategy. At some point and to a degree it has already happened, the targeted militants will adjust to the tactic. For example, they are using women and children increasing as human shields, sleeping in orchards and/or have moved into more urban areas. And Kilcullen & Exum are correct that the predator drone campaign is exciting a "visceral" opposition to the US, though anti-Americanism runs deep on the Pakistani street even absent the strikes.
The fact of the matter is that Pakistan is already lost. We are trying to undo a failed state with artificial borders that is in the midst of a civil war that has elements of an ethnic struggle, a class war plus religious overtones. This is a highly polarized society with few economic prospects. There is a facade of civilian rule but it is the military that makes all the fateful decisions including the rather absurd one to increase the number of its nuclear weapons when the country seems on the verge of implosion. I have never subscribed to the view that the Taliban could wrest control of power in Islamabad in battle. But the reality is that Pakistan has been subjected to a creeping Islamization of its armed forces (and its society) since the days of General Zia ul-Huq. Military aid to Pakistan is money down a sinkhole.