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Are US missile strikes in Pakistan a dud policy?

Predator drones have negative consequences that should be openly debated.

By Micah Zenko / May 4, 2009

New York

President Obama recently announced his policy goals for Afghanistan and Pakistan: "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda … and to prevent their return to either country in the future." An important tool increasingly used in pursuit of those objectives is the use of unmanned aerial drones such as the Predator.

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Under Pakistan's insistence that there be "no boots on the ground" impinging its sovereignty, the Obama administration is in the unenviable position of fighting a counterterrorism campaign from 10,000 feet. With little USpublic debate or congressional oversight, US drones have bombed suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan almost 60 times in the last four years – two-thirds of those attacks since last summer.

From a military and political standpoint, drones have their appeal. Not least of which is the lack of US casualties.

But using them in response to a worsening situation has not only failed to achieve President Bush's or President Obama's goals, it has fueled anti-American animosity on the ground in Pakistan. A former key advisor to Gen. David Petraeus, who is head of US Central Command, has gone so far as to call for an end to the use of drones at a time when advancing technological capabilities have many US military and political leaders clamoring for expanding the scope and intensity of Predator strikes throughout Pakistan.

Before going down that path, the American people should consider the following:

First, senior US officials still insist these Predator strikes are "covert actions" – defined in the National Security Act of 1947 as "activities … where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly." This standing keeps the program officially hidden and therefore beyond an open and public debate. In fact, the drone missions are possibly the world's worst-kept secret.

Since Predators first started buzzing over villages along the border with Afghanistan, a number of unnamed US and Pakistani officials have admitted, off the record, to their use, and shrapnel fragments with US military markings have been found at bombed sites. Yet their use was not acknowledged publicly until January, when Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, Commander of US and NATO troops in eastern Afghanistan, boasted that "The Predator strikes in Waziristan [Pakistan] have caused a disruption across the border."