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The Obama administration won't tell the truth about America's new favorite weapon -- but that doesn't mean its critics are right.
It’s been a bad week for drones. On Friday, U.N. official Philip Alston announced he would be asking the United States to move the controversial, Central Intelligence Agency-run program under the aegis of the military, and international law. He joins a growing chorus of people opposed to the use of drone airstrikes to target militants ensconced in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), on legal, humanitarian, and operational grounds. (Alston is at least more informed than most drone foes in that he recognizes that the drone strikes in Pakistan’s FATA are CIA-led covert operations rather than "military strikes.")
The anti-drone argument goes like this: Because drone attacks kill innocent civilians and violate Pakistan’s sovereignty, they are deeply and universally despised by Pakistanis, and contribute to deepening anti-U.S. sentiment in the country — enmity that could boost terrorist organizations’ recruitment and eventually force Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders to abandon their cooperation with the United States.
During his testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2009, David Kilcullen, a former counterinsurgency advisor to Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus, said it was time for the United States to "call off the drones." Later that month, Kilcullen and Andrew M. Exum, who served as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 to 2004, published a provocative editorial in the New York Times, titled "Death From Above: Outrage from Below," in which they estimated that over the "past three years" drones had killed just 14 "terrorist leaders" at the price of some 700 civilian lives. "This is 50 civilians for every militant killed," they wrote, "a hit rate of 2 percent." Their conclusion? Drone strikes produce more terrorists than they eliminate-an assertion that has become an article of faith among drone-strike opponents.
It would be a damning argument — if the data weren’t simply bogus. The only publicly available civilian casualty figures for drone strikes in Pakistan come from their targets: the Pakistani Taliban, which report the alleged numbers to the Pakistani press, which dutifully publishes the fiction. No one has independently verified the Taliban’s reports — journalists cannot travel to FATA to confirm the deaths, and the CIA will not even acknowledge the drone program exists, much less discuss its results. But high-level Pakistani officials have conceded to me that very few civilians have been killed by drones and their innocence is often debatable. U.S. officials who are knowledgeable of the program report similar findings. In fact, since January 1 there has not been one confirmed civilian casualty from drone strikes in FATA.
Not only do drone opponents rely upon these fictitious reports of civilian casualties, they also tend to conflate drone strikes in Pakistan with air strikes in Afghanistan, lumping the two related but very different battlefields together as one contiguous theater. They also conflate different kinds of air strikes within Afghanistan.
These distinctions matter, a lot. In Afghanistan, it is an ignominious truth that hundreds of civilians are killed in NATO airstrikes every year. But most of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan have not stemmed from pre-planned, intelligence-led attacks; rather, civilians are most likely to die when troops come into contact with the enemy and subsequently request air support. This is because when it comes to air strikes, NATO forces in Afghanistan have a limited range of air assets at their disposal. As a result, when troops come into contact with insurgents and call for air support, they get the ordinance that is available, not the firepower that would be best suited to their needs. Sometimes large bombs are dropped when smaller ones would have been better, and the risk of civilian casualties increases accordingly.
By contrast, drone airstrikes are pre-planned, intelligence-led operations, and are usually accomplished with minimal civilian deaths — as even Human Rights Watch acknowledges. They are the product of meticulous planning among lawyers, intelligence officers, and others who scrupulously and independently confirm information about potential enemies, working to establish a rigorous "pattern of life" to minimize the deaths of innocents. Others in the Air Force, using a classified algorithm, estimate the potential for civilian casualties based upon a variety of local data inputs. While one should not be blasé about the loss of any civilian life, it is important to note that the different kinds of air operations are not created equal.
How does the situation in the air over Afghanistan compare to that in Pakistan? The short answer is that we don’t know — drone strikes in Pakistan are conducted under the auspices of the CIA and occasionally the Joint Special Operations Command, and are covert operations that the United States government does not even acknowledge take place. (If you’ve seen footage of civilian casualties at all, they’re in Afghanistan, not Pakistan.) But if we know little about the drone strikes, we know enough about the alternative means of eliminating terrorists in FATA to know that they’re probably worse. Pakistan has no police in FATA to arrest them. The Pakistan army is now in its 13th month of sustained combat in the region, an effort that has flattened communities and displaced millions but done little to chip away at the insurgents’ strength. Drone strikes may not be perfect, but they’re likely the most humane option available.
Of course, the actual impact of the drone strikes is only part of the equation — the perception of them in Pakistan matters enormously as well. But here, too, the conventional wisdom — that Pakistanis hate the drone strikes, and consider them an affront to their national sovereignty — is not entirely correct. Pakistan’s government makes a big show of opposing the strikes, but it’s not much more than political theater. In fact, the United States secured permission to launch strikes from then President Pervez Musharraf in 2006 — Musharraf was adamant at the time that the strikes be confined to the FATA and they have been. Musharraf also warned U.S. President George W. Bush beforehand that Pakistani military and civilian officials alike would protest the strikes, out of domestic political necessity — it was nothing personal. Presidents Asif Ali Zardari and Barack Obama have inherited this combination of operating agreements and kabuki politics.
What about the Pakistanis in the regions where the strikes are occurring? The truth is, we don’t really know what they think. Collecting reliable and rigorous opinion data in FATA is difficult — the lack of a current census, the influx of Afghan refugees and emigration of FATA natives fleeing the unstable region makes it nearly impossible for even the best polling firms in Pakistan to draw a scientifically defensible sample of FATA residents. As a result, all we have is a smattering of anecdotal accounts, which vary depending upon who is asked, and where, when, and how they are interviewed. On one hand are those who rubbish the Pakistani media claims of civilian casualties and assert that the drones effectively kill militants but not civilians. On the other are outraged residents who live in fear of the constant buzzing of the drones circling above. It’s unreasonable to extrapolate any kind of majority opinion from either one of them.
What is clear enough, however, is that the drone strikes, however unpopular they may be, are likely to be more popular than the realistic alternatives: the Taliban’s violence or the Pakistani army’s operations, which have displaced millions. Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani journalist and commentator, vividly captured the complex reality in his May 11 piece in The News: "The relative popularity of drones is almost as emphatic as their absolute unpopularity. Pakistani military operations have a reputation in the region now, for being so brutal, that entire parts of towns are destroyed. Drones that destroy one or two homes at a time, obviously represent less damage, and therefore, an option that is preferable to the military’s artillery campaigns."
That’s why, if the United States does pull its drones out of FATA, Pakistanis will have two options. Either the government simply gives up the fight, or the Pakistani military — which is already stretched thin — may have to pick up where the Americans leave off. After the Pakistani army’s arduous battle to wrest control of the Swat Valley back from the Taliban beginning in earnest in 2009, Musharraf argued that the United States should give Pakistan drones to pull off future strikes without the massive footprint of a ground force operation. After subsequent requests were rebuffed, Pakistan first sought to buy drones from Italy, but now plans to manufacture them locally.
Nevertheless, American and Pakistani citizens do need to weigh the relative costs and benefits of drone attacks. Doing this requires some concessions from the U.S. government. First, it should abandon the absurd claim that it does not conduct drone strikes — since Google Earth images of U.S. drones at the Shamshi airbase in Baluchistan were published in 2009, the charade hardly seems worth the effort. Second, it should provide evidence of what exactly the drone attacks have produced so far: who has been killed, and how important those people were to the enemy’s capabilities. Drone critics can surely question and even reject the process by which individuals are declared "fair targets" and the legality of these extrajudicial killings. But such a debate can only happen when the U.S. government clarifies how targets are selected and vetted.
Until the U.S. government owns these attacks and presents information about their outcomes, at best unrealiable and at worst fabricated civilian casualties figures will dominate the drone debate. And that would be the real tragedy — it could force policymakers in the United States and Pakistan to discard the least bad tool at their disposal.