Pulpit Bulls

Policy, Politics, and What's In Between

Are Unmanned Drones Counterproductive?

Posted by Eric on May 24, 2009


“The militants say that if the Americans want to come and fight, they should fight them face to face,” says Mahmood Shah, a retired brigadier who was once the top Pakistani official in FATA. Shah, a Pashtun himself, says the families of the drones’ victims are required under the tribal code to seek revenge, which makes them ideal recruits for militant leaders like Baitullah Mehsud, the Pashtun commander of the Pakistani Taliban. Mehsud, says Shah, “likes to boast that each drone attack brings him three or four suicide bombers.”

Critics of the drones ask if it makes sense for the U.S. to use them when every strike inflames Pakistani public opinion against a pro-U.S. government that is at the point of collapse. “If we wind up killing a whole bunch of al-Qaeda leaders and, at the same time, Pakistan implodes, that’s not a victory for us,” says David Kilcullen, a counterterrorism expert who played a key role in developing the surge strategy in Iraq. “It’s possible the political cost of these attacks exceeds the tactical gains.”

That’s from an article in TIME today. Read the whole thing, if you are interested. (You should be, it’s important!) I’ve been convinced for a while now that these type of airstrikes, which often carry high civilian casualty rates, turn populations against us and make the already difficult nature of COIN even harder to achieve. That the Obama administration has increased these operations is troubling.


3 Responses to “Are Unmanned Drones Counterproductive?”

  1. The only thing is, Pakistan actually wants us to give THEM the drones so THEY can do the exact same thing or probably worse. Nobody really wants to meet the Taliban in those villages because how do you tell friend from foe? Here is the question I have and I don’t have an answer myself. How do we know that if we sent troops in to fight that the number of innocents killed wouldn’t go up exponentially. If you look at Iraq we weren’t exaclty just using drones there and we have killed well over 100,000 of their civilians. Its something I believe we don’t spend enough time thinking about but wouldn’t the level of outrage be even higher if a soldier accidentally shoots women or an actual soldier blows up a building holding children? What would the aftermath look like if we sent troops to take out taliban/al qaeda leaders in a building populated by innocents? This is almost a no win situation because I just can’t imagine a scenario where we root our terrorists in these villages in Pakistan without inflicting some collateral damage.

  2. Eric said

    As you mention, these are certainly tough questions. I know there are plenty of smart people who disagree with me on this stuff (including, I think, Mr. Gregory Holmes of this very blog), but I haven’t been convinced by any of the responses I’ve heard.
    You bring up a lot of decent points, but look: according to the article drones “had killed 687 civilians and only 14 al-Qaeda leaders.” That’s a terrible ratio. I can’t believe that going into villages would produce that kind of collateral damage. I think the real problem is what you allude to — nobody wants to go there. We don’t want to get Americans killed, so we blow a bunch of civilians up to protect those American lives. This brings up all kinds of ethical questions, but ultimately I feel it’s probably counterproductive to COIN which demands some level of trust and cooperation among a populace.
    As for Pakistani attempts to get access to those drones, I guess one could use an “if Pakistan wanted to jump off a cliff does that mean we should” argument, but really isn’t there pretty good reason to believe that Pakistan wants these weapons to use against (or threaten) India?

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