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.
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."
Second, the drones are a hot potato for Pakistani political and military leaders. For political reasons, leaders loudly and publicly protest attacks, but in truth they are not only well aware of the Predator program, they are quietly allowing the activity. In February, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, caused a minor diplomatic flare-up between Washington and Islamabad when she mentioned them being flown out of a Pakistani base. But even this assertion had already been reported in The Washington Post twice in early 2008, and the Pakistani daily The News had published Google Earth photographs time-stamped 2006 showing three drones parked at an airstrip in the Kharan District of Pakistan's Baluchistan province.
Third, the targets of the Predator strikes increasingly are not "high-value Al Qaeda targets who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks," as claimed by Obama. In fact, almost every recent strike, including one last week in the village of Kanni Garam, has been against the militant network run by jihadist leader Baitullah Mehsud. The leader is believed to have orchestrated the assassination of former Prime Minister and presidential candidate Benazir Bhutto. Reportedly, his primary agenda and interests are to overthrow the government of Pakistan.
Fourth, factions within the Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have tipped off its allies within the Taliban about US operations against them. As General Patraeus noted recently in Senate testimony: "An intelligence agency contact ... is warning [the Taliban] of an impending operation." At times, this has thwarted the advantage of surprise that the drones might have.
Fifth, because the United States relies on either ISI agents on the ground or overhead video feeds, it can be unclear if the person targeted was killed. This problem is exacerbated by the militants' practice of sealing off bombed-out sites, and removing the bodies for burial before the victims can be identified.
Sixth, after 60 Predator strikes, Islamic jihadist groups are steadily expanding their reach into Pakistani society. What is worse, the well-publicized attacks and their inevitable civilian casualties – almost 700 according to Pakistan – are swelling the ranks of jihadists who oppose the government in Islamabad, which ultimately gives the green light for the drone attacks in the first place.
The president was correct, if overdue, when admitting he was "gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan." By being forced to battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban with flying robots from above, US leaders are put in a position where they remain largely unaware or uninterested in the serious negative consequences that the strikes have on the ground in Pakistan. At the very least, US officials should be more forthcoming in defending the use of drones and therefore open their use up to public debate.
The Predator strikes in Pakistan are a tactical response to a worsening foreign policy dilemma that requires developing and implementing a comprehensive national strategy – using nonmilitary as well as military means – to resolve the long-term problems posed by militant groups along the Pakistani border with Afghanistan. Predator strikes can be one component of an overall strategy, but not a substitution for it.