The Drone Debate

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.

Tags: pakistan, US Foreign Policy, US-Pakistan Relations Predator Drone Attacks (all tags)



Re: The Drone Debate

I'm not sure what beating the 'failed' state drum achieves at this point.  The timing seems awkward, for one thing.  For once the Army is behaving as an army, the coalition is united, more or less, and the people are treated to the sight of their government doing something besides serving their own venal interests.  And this something just happens to be the thing we've been wringing our collective geopolitical hands over them not doing for years.  As for the nuclear issue, it is chauvinism of the first rank, no argument there.  But does it change anything?  China built them their first breeder reactor, should we take it up with them?  And what can France be thinking?  If Pakistan signed the NPT within eighteen months would that change your point of view?

As for the drone issue specifically and military intervention in Pakistan generally I think Kilcullen said it best back in February:

Our first preference must be to help Pakistan extend its writ across its whole population and territory, so as to close the terrorist safe haven rather than just strike the terrorists in it. In practice, this would mean that our preferred option would always be to respect Pakistani sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to deal with terrorists by helping the Pakistani government gain control of its own national-security agencies, its territory and its population (including by bringing the FATA under effective and regular civil administration, channeling targeted economic assistance to Pakistan and sponsoring key governance reforms).

In those limited areas where Pakistan has proven unable or unwilling to establish government control (and therefore, in fact, areas that lie outside its effective sovereignty even though they may lie within its geographical boundaries) the international community would still need to reserve the right to unilaterally strike terrorist targets, but this must be a last resort, based where possible on consultation with Islamabad, applied only with the specific knowledge and approval, on a case-by-case basis, of President Obama, and only to targets that met all four of the following selection criteria:

1) The target in question poses a threat to the international community (not solely to U.S. forces or interests in Afghanistan); AND

2) It is located in an area outside of effective Pakistani sovereignty (e.g. in a non-controlled area of the FATA or in a micro-haven elsewhere) AND

3) Pakistan has tried but failed to extend its sovereignty into the area, or to deal effectively with the target on its own; AND

4) The target is positively identified and clearly distinguishable from surrounding populations, reducing the risk of collateral damage to a level acceptable to elected political leaders.

Some might argue that this sets an extremely high bar, so high that in practice such strikes would almost never be approved. I agree - that's the whole point.

Dr. David Kilcullen - Crunch Time in Afghanistan-Pakistan Small Wars Journal 9 Feb 09

Works for me.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-19 11:25PM | 0 recs
Well now wait just a minute

The Pakistani people rise up to force Mushariff out and we called it instability.  They marched in the streets to demand reinstatement of an independent judiciary and we said they were on the brink.  Anywhere else we'd be saying democracy was on the march but here we're scared out of our minds that the country's going to the fundamentalists when the evidence is clearly to the contrary.

Bill Moyers had a great peice on this yesterday.  The "Taliban" which is actually two or three separate groups as I understand it, operate in the remotest areas of the nation where the fewest people live.  Don't get me wrong, the situation is bad there, but I think the imagery of Islamic fundamentalists taking over the country is a little farfetched.  The Pakistani people have demonstrated time and time again that they want democracy and have challenged corrupt elected governments (like the current one) and military dictators (like Musharrif) alike.  They've also demonstrated an opposition to the Taliban mindset.

Bottom line, I think the solution here is the same as much of the Middle-East and the surrounding regions-get the hell out!  The more interference we have in these countries, the worse things are going to be for us and for them as history shows again and again.  The best thing we can do is stop the bombings, demonstrate to the people of Pakistan that we're not their enemies the way we are attempting to do with the Iranians, and stop playing into the hands of both their government and the extremists.

If you want to read more, Bill Moyer's had an interesting conversation on the subject: 09/transcript4.html

by ARDem 2009-05-20 06:53AM | 0 recs
Re: Well now wait just a minute

I think I basically agree with you, though I don't see us bailing out of Afghanistan just yet.  But how is it that we are 'in' Pakistan in any case?  Or are you just refering to the drones?

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-20 07:12AM | 0 recs
Re: Well now wait just a minute

I'm referring to our involvement within the nation's borders and the chance that the war in Afghanistan could carry over into Pakistan in a big way.

I want to get Bin Laden as much as anyone and make sure Al Qaeda is shut down or at least badly crippled.  I don't think the drone policy helps in that objective.  Rather, I think they cement anti-American sentiment when they kill civilians and strengthen what I'd call a powerful movement in the region created and strengthened by Iraq and all our foreign policy missteps over the last few years.  Instead, a comprehensive strategy needs to be developed, including an exit strategy.

by ARDem 2009-05-20 07:24AM | 0 recs
Re: The Drone Debate

I'm guessing that's what Kilcullen meant when he wrote, 'Some might argue that this sets an extremely high bar, so high that in practice such strikes would almost never be approved. I agree - that's the whole point.'  The beauty of his four-point criteria is that the missions wouldn't be stopped, as a matter of policy, but extremely infrequent in practice.  We could still take out Bin Laden's dialysis machine if we ever found it.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-20 12:37PM | 0 recs
Re: The Drone Debate

That's the thing though, if we have bombs dropping on the place we'll never find the guy.  The trick to getting Bin Laden and his ilk is getting the local tribesman to switch sides.  As long as there's the risk of a bomb hitting their family we'll never get the guy.

by ARDem 2009-05-20 01:44PM | 0 recs
Re: The Drone Debate

I tend to agree, certainly with the localisation strategy you promote.  The thing is we seem to be a long way from achieving that situation and the consequences of years of indifferent policy to remedy.  I certainly think the drone tactic made far more sense in a context where Pakistan was indifferent to or covertly opposing our aim of disrupting al-Qaeda in the FATA.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-20 02:03PM | 0 recs
Re: The Drone Debate

Right.  I'm glad we're in a agreement there.  The best thing President Obama can do now is end the bombing campaign in a very public way and take that message directly to the people of Pakistan with overtures like the ones he's used recently in Iran.

The torture debate also plays into this.  Remember, a number of these people essentially had their loved ones "disappeared" under the Bush/Cheney program, many of them apparently innocent of any charges and just ratted out by local rivals.  If we're going to make any headway in the region we need openness and accountability on this issue, something that makes Obama's tiptoeing on the issue even more frustrating.

by ARDem 2009-05-20 06:45PM | 0 recs
Re: The Drone Debate

Well, I said I 'tend' to agree.  I think we need to soft-peddle the Predator strikes but leave our options open.  I don't think that outright suspension is a nuanced response which is why I like Kilcullen's strict formula in the first place, as I said.  And we really need to clarify our protocal on airstrikes in Afghanistan and either get serious and precise in our use of ground assets or seriously consider giving it up, what we are doing now is the worst of both worlds and indicates weakness and a deteriorating tactical environment.

As for the torture issue, beyond the repeal of promiscuous executive orders and renewing adherence to the international rule of law I don't see where the executive branch has a responsibility here, let the legislative and judiciary have a crack at it and more power to them.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-20 07:27PM | 0 recs
Re: The Drone Debate

The executive branch could work to inform the governments and families of some of the people held in Guantanamo and the Blacksites around the globe of their loved ones whereabouts, well being, and legal situation.  And if we take an honest look at many of the cases we'll find there's no reason to hold quite a few of the people we have in captivity.  The President can take the initiative there and work to get them back home, safe and sound, an action that says A) He's not George Bush. and B) America's back for real.

by ARDem 2009-05-20 09:43PM | 0 recs
Re: The Drone Debate

I think the whole episode is deplorable but see no reason why the executive branch should be further involved, there are more pressing matters on which I would like to see their attention focused.

by Shaun Appleby 2009-05-20 10:32PM | 0 recs


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