The Drone Campaign

Why it must be expanded and defended.

The Obama Administration, to its credit, has been very tough on Pakistan. The drones strikes are being used as anti-American propaganda in the Islamic world and are highly unpopular in Pakistan, but the administration is not buying into the line that we’re creating more terrorists than we’re killing and is actually expanding their use.

President Obama has continued a policy begun in 2008 by the Bush Administration to allow the CIA to attack terrorists in Pakistan even when their names are unknown. This is extremely important, as it means that low-level operatives who are undergoing training to become a future bomber, such as Faisal Shahzad, can be killed just as much as the top officials can be. If the CIA focuses only on known leadership figures, it is ignoring the conveyer belt of terrorists that those figures are producing, and action is stalled as the agency tries to figure out who exactly the person is and whether they belong on the list of people it is permitted to kill.

Since coming to power, the Obama Administration has increased the number of drone strikes by three times over its predecessor. Three strikes, on average, are carried out each and every week in Pakistan. This number is probably going to increase very soon as more information comes to light about Shahzad’s involvement with the Taliban and the Pakistanis refuse to send its military to take control of North Waziristan.

There are other lawless places like Somalia or Yemen where the government is unable or unwilling to take the fight to the terrorists. The increase in terrorist plots on U.S. soil brings home the fact that the U.S. can not always wait to train security forces until they can stabilize their countries. The expansion of the drone war to include other countries is inevitable, and a public defense of this strategy needs to be waged so that our elected officials do not buckle in the face of criticism from overseas and from anti-war forces at home who oppose virtually any act of violence.

The effectiveness of these strikes needs to be explained. A U.S. review found that over the past two years, 500 terrorists, including 14 top leaders and 24 high and mid-level leaders, have been killed by them. Reuters estimates that the number is actually much higher with at least 850 being killed.

These strikes make it more difficult for the terrorists to organize and maintain their networks. Some members of the Pakistani Taliban have admitted that they now have to operate underground and this is creating splits in their ranks. In July 2009, a book published by Al-Qaeda on the Internet blamed spies for the success of the drone strikes, showing that the terrorist group is fearful and becoming paranoid because of them. Daniel Lev of the Middle East Media Research Institute said he had never seen senior members of Al-Qaeda express “such an admission of distress” before.

Critics of the strikes argue that they are wreaking havoc and causing large numbers of civilian casualties. They point to local press reports of high casualties, and overall estimates in the Pakistani media of over 600 civilians being killed.

The U.S. review found that the actual number of civilians that have been killed in the past two years was less than 30, and some of these civilians aren’t exactly innocent. That count includes “civilians” who were alongside the terrorists being targeted, such as the second wife of the Taliban’s top leader. Reliable casualty numbers are very difficult to obtain, but whereas the local press has to rely upon numbers coming out of inaccessible areas controlled by the Taliban, the U.S. can use advanced surveillance in their post-attack reports. The U.S. total may not be exact, but it’s more reliable than relying upon local reports and it shows a dramatically more humane picture of the drone campaign.

The general line against the drones is that they will push Pakistanis to support the enemy. This is patently false. Bill Roggio of The Long War Journal refuted this argument by showing that the percentage of Pakistanis opposed to U.S. action inside Pakistan and the overall favorability rating of the U.S. remained the same between 2007 and August 2009 after the increase in drone strikes was well underway. The favorability rating of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda actually decreased dramatically during this period as more and more Pakistanis were victimized by them.

This does not mean that the Pakistani public looks favorably upon the strikes. A Gallup poll last August found that only 9 percent of Pakistanis support them, and 67 percent opposed them. The majority saw the U.S. as a bigger threat than the Taliban. On the other hand, the statistics from the areas under extremist control that actually are targeted by the drones have a different outlook.

The Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy asked 550 people in Parachinar and North and South Waziristan their opinion on the matter. They found that just under two-thirds wanted the U.S. strikes to continue, 52 percent felt the strikes were accurate, 58 percent did not believe they increased anti-Americanism, and over two-thirds saw the Al-Qaeda and Taliban as their top enemy. As I’ve always said, to live under radical Islam is to hate radical Islam.

In fairness, some things must be noted about that poll. They targeted “professional people,” who are more likely to be well-off and educated. This may skew the results. Wired Magazine also says that the group has taken part in anti-Taliban rallies. This does not disqualify the poll, as the areas of greatest resentment against the Taliban are the very areas that they control, but a fair analysis must include these concerns.

A public defense of the drone strikes must include the fact that over 3,000 Pakistanis have died in terrorist attacks in 2009 alone. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, Pakistan has suffered an attack every ten days on average. Over 5,700 have been killed in all. The drone attacks have nothing to do with the terrorist groups’ establishment of vicious Sharia Law where they take hold and nothing to do with their attacks on civilians, soldiers, and government targets. These facts need to be reiterated as much as possible.

The only valid criticism of the drone strikes is that if they replace snatch operations and detainments by the Pakistani government, vital intelligence is lost. These strikes should not be seen as an equal alternative to Pakistani military offensives or special operations raids, but as the next best option. Politically, the use of drone strikes is appealing to the U.S. government as dead terrorists don’t need to be housed and can’t be questioned, thereby avoiding the issues of Guantanamo Bay, what forms of interrogation count as torture, and putting terrorists on trial. The drones shouldn’t be seen as the be-all solution, but their effectiveness cannot be doubted and the Obama administration needs to do a better job of countering false charges against their use.

The information about Faisal Shahzad having a relationship with members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed means the campaign in Pakistan must again be expanded to include terrorist groups besides Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It is inevitable that the U.S. will have to build more drones and use them regularly in places besides Pakistan, and we must be prepared to defend their use against the myths perpetrated by hostile audiences overseas and unrealistic pacifists at home.