Sources tell us that unmanned CIA predator aircraft are credited with obliterating key militants like Baitullah Mehsud and Osama bin Laden’s son with strikes in Pakistan earlier this year. Although official confirmation of high profile killings take time given the highly “sensitive nature of CIA operations along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier” according to the Washington Post, debate on the use of unmanned CIA aircrafts, or “drones” in Pakistan is attracting growing attention.
CNN’s Nic Robertson has an informative piece this summer on how drones are “revolutionizing” warfare and does a good job of covering how these aircraft are effective: “the drones are dramatically tilting the war in favor of the United States. Predators, for example played a key role in killing Al Qaeda and killing more than half of it’s top 20 leaders”. He mentions an expert who cites 95% accuracy in locating and successfully striking targets which allows military gains to “obviously” outweigh glitches that account for the remaining 5%. The article is available online and in the “Don’t Miss” left frame toward the end of the piece we see related headlines that read “U.S. Envoy told: Pakistan drone strikes not working” and “U.N. Envoy calls for probe into U.S. Drone Attacks”.
I looked at the piece on Envoy Holbrooke in relation to drone strikes in Pakistan and it became clear that this is becoming a polarizing issue. While it is highly convenient for us to strike international targets from the safety of domestic military bases, the areas we currently target in Pakistan are suffering widespread collateral damage, otherwise known as civilian casualties. According to the Brookings Institution “for every one militant killed, 10 civilians are dead” as a result of U.S. led drone strikes so far. The report concurs that strikes have been effective at killing a minimum of 10 Al Qaeda operatives, but comes at the cost of civilian casualties which ultimately “undermines the Pakistani governments efforts to win over the population and isolate extremists”.
Bloomberg News does an excellent job of reconciling both U.S. and Pakistani interests in an article today citing Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in a meeting with Secretary Clinton: “we are talking about drone technology to be transferred to Pakistan so that we get ownership of the drone usage”. The logic here is long term: it is planning against a potential epistemic threat to Pakistan. Because if drones are killing civilians on a nebulous Afghan border where terrorists flee NATO forces into Pakistan, there is a grave epistemic threat of an intense ideological impact they can have on civilians and especially refugees displaced by these strikes. Without adequate food, shelter and other basic necessities Pakistani civilians fleeing drones attacks become prime prey for terrorist groups where they can be recruited or used as human shields, which is sadly a reality. So it is imperative that the United States and Pakistan work closely on intelligence sharing, and the Pakistani military receive adequate anti-terror training and supplies to ensure minimal loss of civilian life while also continuing their success in the SWAT region. Since July, “Pakistani forces killed more than 1,600 militants in a 10- week offensive” and cooperation with the U.S. is progressing as Secretary Clinton referred to these successes as “encouraging and impressive”.
So the drone issue should be reconciled with close collaboration and sensitivity. Referring back to Nic Robertson’s piece, 40+ states and even non state actors such as Hezbollah are on their way to employing the use of drones, which could spur even more controversy on the consequences and overall effectiveness of such tactics. Which makes it very important that in our current drone strikes on Pakistan, we keep in mind that to ensure moral leadership in the world, our forces exercise thoughtful caution with strikes by working closely and in compromise with Islamabad to ensure civilian casualties are kept to a minimum. This can be done through, as I’ve mentioned before, increased intelligence sharing to allow strikes to be as acute, and surgical as possible and consistently supplying anti-terrorist training and equipment to Pakistan. Thus, allowing the Pakistani military access and control to these drones as suggested by Foreign Minister Qureshi is an opportunity to better target terrorists. It also absolves the U.S. of sole liability for civilian losses incurred while also creating a point of agreement rather than contention with Islamabad on this increasingly strategic issue. Because in order to maintain moral leadership, a sensitive, very minimal use of drones only when absolutely necessary allows us a legitimate authority to advise future states in using these tactics wisely.