Drones are America’s Default Option

When examining all of the options available for dealing with Pakistan’s insurgency, drone strikes come ahead as the most plausible.

For the past six years, counterterrorism officials have considered Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as a top priority in the fight against Islamic extremism. For the United States specifically, FATA has frequently been cited as the main hub of Taliban and Al Qaeda activity. Indeed, there appears to be a stack of evidence on their behalf; most of the attacks against coalition troops in eastern Afghanistan have originated across the border in Pakistan. The fact that western Muslims are traveling to Pakistan in droves to join the jihad draws another dimension to the FATA problem.

The hard part for American and NATO officials has always been how to diminish the threat of terrorism in the FATA badlands. What techniques should be used? Relying on the Pakistani military to clear the area of militants has been an option, but recent operations by Islamabad have only worked in specific circumstances. Pakistani officials have repeatedly argued that the Swat Valley and South Waziristan have been totally cleared of belligerents, yet bombings against Pakistani policemen continue unabated. And North Waziristan, an agency that houses numerous Al Qaeda factions, has been virtually untouched by the Pakistanis.

The introduction of American troops into Pakistan would at first appear to be another effective strategy. But Islamabad is not willing to permit American boots on Pakistani soil.

Therein lies the importance of American-operated drone strikes in the battle against extremism in Pakistan. Since the program was initiated in 2004, the stealthy unnamed planes have killed hundreds of low level militants and perhaps dozens of senior terrorist commanders. Countless plots have been disrupted or scrapped due to the relentless pressure of the drones on terrorist hideouts, particularly in North Waziristan. Al Qaeda has been forced to replace its third most powerful leader multiple times over the past two years alone, and all of this has been made possible without a single American casualty.

Yet despite all of the benefits associated with drone strikes, civil liberty activists and an increasing amount of think-tank researchers have questioned the sustainability of the program. Many of these individuals are particularly disturbed that the UAV attacks are allegedly operated by the CIA, which obscures the transparency and accountability which international law requires of all United Nations member states. Indeed, the criteria that is used to place a terrorist operative on the “kill list” is hidden from the public domain.

Philip Alston, the UN official in charge of extrajudicial killings, is especially worried about these implications. In June, Alston submitted a scathing critique (PDF) of the drone program to the organization’s Human Rights Council, claiming that Washington is essentially executing drone operations on an “ill-defined license to kill.”

Just this past Friday, Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations expanded upon this critique by offering a strategic rationale to the anti-UAV position. In addition to the innocent human lives that are often lost as a result of drone operations, Zenko argues that the entire program reinforces a “quick fix” mindset among officials responsible for counterterrorism policy:

Under pressure to act in response to a threat and seduced by the allure and responsiveness of limited force, presidents elevate military options above other instruments of statecraft. Once the bombs have been dropped…and the politically necessary “do something” box has been ticked, complex, robust secondary measures rarely come to fruition.

But what is the alternative? A fully resourced and expensive nonmilitary campaign? The rebuilding of infrastructure that would cost the American taxpayer billions of dollars? Economic development and institutional formation? Actually, this is precisely what Zenko recommends. Unfortunately, Americans’ and Europeans’ patience is running thin. Nobody wants to embark upon another nation building exercise, particularly when infrastructure is crumbling at home and military resources are tied down in neighboring Afghanistan. A Western counterinsurgency campaign in Pakistan is unfeasible.

Given the lack of options that are both politically plausible and financially acceptable, targeting terrorist hideouts in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas will likely remain the default choice. The Obama Administration certainly believes that covert attacks are worth continuing: last September saw the highest amount of drone strikes in western Pakistan since the program began.

All of this, of course, assumes that terrorist networks based in Pakistan don’t successfully launch a major attack on American and European targets in the near future. If such an incident does occur, expect the United States to quickly forget about the limitations of Pakistani sovereignty.