Drones: The Best Option We’ve Got

by Josh Meservey on November 16, 2012

There is plenty to give one pause about the United States’ drone policy in Pakistan.  Shrouded in secrecy, the program has deepened mistrust in some parts of the world over how the U.S. uses its military might, and raised thorny legal and moral issues to boot. It has strained the already precarious relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, and the Obama administration has yet to articulate how the use of drones fits into a broader Pakistan strategy.

Moreover, the United States’ use of drones raises the troubling question of civilian casualties. A recent report released by the Stanford and New York University law schools concluded that the U.S. drone policy is “damaging and counterproductive,” in part because of its “harmful impacts” on Pakistani civilians. Beyond the obvious tragedy of the loss of human life, civilian deaths are also a serious blow to any counterinsurgency campaign; killing civilians is one of the quickest ways to alienate the very population whose loyalty is critical in defeating an insurgency. There is no doubt that drone strikes that kill innocent people in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) make it easier for terrorist organizations to recruit there.

Despite these challenging realities, however, the U.S. must continue its drone strikes in the FATA, because ending them would mean the loss of the United States’ only effective weapon against the deadly array of armed groups that have clustered there.  Remote, rugged, and notoriously inhospitable to governmental authority, the FATA serves as a conduit for anti-Coalition fighters into Afghanistan, a safe haven for al-Qaeda and the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans, a base for the Haqqani network, and a graveyard for thousands of Pakistani soldiers. The region presents an urgent national security problem for both the United States and Pakistan, but ultimately one that only the Pakistani government can fully solve, as the problems in the FATA are fundamentally political.

The government has long neglected the area, ruling it with colonial-era laws that have contributed to its current isolation. Until the Pakistani government incorporates the FATA into the broader Pakistani polity, it will remain welcoming territory for extremists. The government has taken a few hesitant steps toward the sorts of far-reaching, structural reforms necessary to erode the terrorists’ base of support, but they are insufficient.

Furthermore, while the Pakistani army has begun fighting the confusing tangle of terrorist organizations in the area, it has made only incremental progress. The Pakistani army is still largely a conventional force ill-suited to wage the sort of counterinsurgency campaign necessary, and questions remain over its dedication to the fight. For instance, its military intelligence branch, the ISI, has well-documented links with the Afghan Taliban currently sheltering in the FATA.

With the Pakistani government unable and perhaps unwilling to address the problem in the FATA, the U.S. is left with few options. It could suspend drone attacks and allow the FATA to function as a true safe haven, or it could launch a full-scale incursion into Pakistani territory. Neither of these choices is realistic or desirable, and no other solutions are readily apparent. Drones, then, are the best option.

Drones are an effective and useful tool for a place like the FATA. In the chaotic struggle within the area, drones are likely the most precise weapon ever used—in 2010, Amnesty International estimated that the fighting between the Pakistani army and militants killed 1,363 civilians, while the New America Foundation’s highest estimates for civilian deaths by drones in 2009 was 223. Drone strikes are now subjected to rigorous levels of oversight, and there has been a marked decline in civilian deaths in 2012, perhaps because General Petraeus, who recently resigned as Director of the CIA, literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency and understood the importance of not alienating the local population. In fact, if one were able to add up the number of civilians that would have been killed by the terrorists that have been killed by drone strikes in the FATA, drones almost certainly save civilian lives.

And frankly, drones are very good at what they do. The list of high-level terrorists that have been killed by drones gets longer and longer, and includes some truly violent individuals, such as al-Qaeda and Taliban bomb makers, WMD experts, and very senior leaders. There is simply no other tactic that has had anywhere near this level of success against high-level terrorist targets in the FATA.

But important questions remain unanswered: what are the moral implications of killing with drones? What sort of precedent does it set? How do drones fit into an overarching counterterrorism strategy? While policymakers need to wrestle with these questions, their answers will not solve the profoundly difficult problem of the FATA. As long as the area remains a refuge for groups that kill American servicemen and women in Afghanistan and destabilize the Afghan and Pakistani governments, the U.S. has a right and a duty to respond with drones: a stop-gap, imperfect tactic, but the best one it has.

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