U.S. intelligence officials have called the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones, “their most effective weapon against Al Qaeda.” This belief seems to be manifested in the increased frequency of drone attacks in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although the Bush administration authorized only a handful of such strikes in 2007, the Wall Street Journal reports there were more than 30 attacks in 2008. So far in 2009, attacks are up 30 percent from last year, with Newsblogging noting there have been 27 drone attacks, “of which only two occurred before Obama took office.”
Obama’s administration officials have claimed that drone strikes in Pakistan have killed nine of the 20 top Al Qaeda officials. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann echoed in an article last month, “It is possible to say with some certainty that since the summer of 2008, U.S. drones have killed dozens of lower-ranking militants and at least ten mid-and upper-level leaders within Al Qaeda and the Taliban.” Despite these successes, U.S. drone strikes have been widely criticized for their high civilian death toll. The U.S. has been tight-lipped on these numbers, refusing to disclose “how many civilians have been killed in the strikes,” but an article in The News this past April published figures provided by Pakistani officials, “indicating that 687 civilians have been killed along with 14 Al Qaeda leaders in some 60 drone strikes since January 2008 – just over 50 civilians killed for every Al Qaeda leader.”
Last week, Daniel Byman from Brookings was more cautious in his assessment when he noted, “Sourcing on civilian deaths is weak and the numbers are often exaggerated.” However, he added, “more than 600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks. That number suggests that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.” Amir Mir, a Pakistan terrorism expert, put the total number of deaths caused by drone strikes since 2006 at 700, a number similar to Bergen and Tiedemann’s estimates, “although he asserts that the vast majority of casualties have been civilians, something that is, in fact, impossible to establish definitively.”
In Pakistan, these civilian deaths have sparked outrage among the population, leading many analysts to question whether the costs of drone strikes outweigh their benefits. David Kilcullen, author of The Accidental Guerilla and an influential counterinsurgency advisor to Gen. David Petraeus between 2006 to 2008, believes these attacks do more harm than good because of the “backlash they create.” In the Small Wars Journal earlier this year he wrote, “Unilateral strikes against targets inside Pakistan, whatever other purpose they might serve, have an unarguably and entirely negative effect on Pakistani stability…They increase the number and radicalism of Pakistanis who support extremism and thus undermine the key strategic problem of building a willing and capable partner in Pakistan.” In a NY Times op-ed written with Andrew McDonald Exum, Kilcullen further asserted, “…Every one of these dead noncombatants [from U.S. drone attacks] represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.”
Drone strikes have also impacted overarching anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan. A recent poll conducted by World Public Opinion from May 17 – May 28, 2009 found that 82% of Pakistanis view predator strikes as “unjustified,” (interestingly, though, the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy found that more than half the people it polled in FATA said the drone strikes are accurate and are damaging the militant organizations. Fewer than half said that anti-American sentiment in the area had increased due to the drone attacks).
If the strategic costs outweigh the tactical benefits, why does the United States continue to champion such a policy? Upon studying numerous articles and resources, the answer seems to be: because it is their best worst option. According to an article in last week’s Wall Street Journal, “Unlike fighter jets or cruise missiles, Predators can loiter over their targets for more than 20 hours, take photos in which men, women and children can be clearly distinguished (burqas can be visible from 20,000 feet) and deliver laser-guided munitions with low explosive yields. This minimizes the risks of the ‘collateral damage’ that often comes from 500-pound bombs.”
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the U.S. operates the MQ-1 Predator and their more sophisticated successor MQ-9 Reaper drones, the most impressive thing, noted the Atlantic, is that they fly slow. The news piece elaborated, “That’s right, in counterinsurgency operations, where the goal is to hunt and kill individuals or small groups of fighters—rather than to attack mass infantry formations—the slower a plane flies, the better.”
From a U.S. standpoint, the use of drones are not only cheaper than conventional planes, they also keep pilots and American soldiers “out of harm’s way,” particularly since most UAVs are manned from thousands of miles away. The Air Force’s Predator missions, for instance, are operated by pilots sitting in trailers at Nellis Air Force base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. In the aforementioned 2006 Atlantic piece, “Hunting the Taliban in Las Vegas,” Robert Kaplan described the inside of one of these trailers,
Like sub drivers, Pred pilots fly blind, using only the visual depiction of their location on a map and math—numerical readouts indicating latitude, longitude, height, wind speeds, ground elevation, nearby planes, and so forth. The camera in the rotating ball focuses only on the object under surveillance. The crew’s situational awareness is restricted to the enemy on the ground. Much of the time during a stakeout, the Pred flies a preprogrammed hexagon, racetrack, bow tie, or some other circular-type holding pattern. Each trailer holds a two-person crew: a pilot and a “sensor,” who operates the ball. Both face half a dozen computer screens, including map displays and close-up shots of the object under surveillance.
Today, MQ-9 Reapers are slowly replacing the Predators, which are a newer model and more heavily armed. And, in a sign of growing U.S. support for these drones, the military is spending significant more money on this technology, from $880 million in 2007 to $2 billion a year. Several sources note that the strikes have disrupted Al Qaeda’s operations, and Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, testified to Congress in February that “replacing the loss of key leaders since 2008 in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas has proved difficult for Al Qaeda.” Someone speaking from a U.S. national security standpoint would also point out that bombs in the air are a better and more viable option than boots on the ground.
From a Pakistani perspective, none of these explanations are likely to improve perceptions of the United States. In fact, much of this reasoning comes off as callous and clinical when placed in context with the tremendous amount of civilian casualties, (the WSJ’s line: “drones have made war-fighting more humane,” further emphasizes this point). However, recent developments indicate that a compromise has been reached between Washington and Islamabad. According to McClatchy news service, recent drone strikes targeting key Pakistani militant leaders “indicate the two governments are coordinating closely.” In the new offensive in South Waziristan, “Pakistani forces have been preparing the battleground by sending in combat aircraft to pound suspected militant hideouts and defenses. The U.S. drones, which contain highly sophisticated technology for homing in on individuals, seem to be augmenting the attack.” Analyst Hasan Askari-Rizvi told the news agency, “The frequency (of the drone strikes) has been increased in order to support Pakistan’s military operations in South Waziristan…These operations help Pakistan contain Beitullah Mehsud.”
Ultimately, the question remains: Even with this reported coordination between U.S. and Pakistan, are drone attacks ever acceptable? What if they killed Mehsud or his top operatives? As Byman noted, “The real answer to halting Al Qaeda’s activity in Pakistan will be the long-term support of Pakistan’s counterinsurgency efforts,” not the short-term advocacy of Predator or Reaper drones.