Pakistan vs U.S. Dumbing down the drones debate

April 14, 2011

tribesmen2If there was one thing the United States might have learned in a decade of war is that military might alone cannot compensate for lack of knowledge about people and conditions on the ground.  That was true in Afghanistan and Iraq, and may also turn out to be the case in Libya.

Yet the heated  debate about using Predator drones to target militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan – triggered by the spy row between the CIA and the ISI – appears to be falling into a familiar pattern – keep bombing versus stop bombing. Not whether, when and how drones might be effective, based on specific conditions and knowledge of the ground, and when they are counter-productive. 

Combined with that is a tendency to discuss the use of drones in isolation without taking account of the historical context (Pakistan and the United States have been rowing about this for several years – it is not new)  or indeed the broader political context (a botched drone attack by the CIA is guaranteed to enrage all the more if it comes at a time when American diplomats are trying to convince Pakistan they want to improve relations.)  

Consider, for example, the case of a tribesman with a performing monkey who gathered an audience of turban-clad, rifle-bearing men around him in a village in 2005. The U.S. controllers of the drone mistook the event for a weapons-training session or military briefing and dropped a missile, killing many in the audience.  That story was recounted by General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, now head of the Pakistan Army, and quoted by Brian Cloughley in his book “War, Coups and Terror”. “This, said the General, was an example of lack of cultural understanding,” wrote Cloughley.

Then there was the botched drone attack on Damadola in Bajaur agency in 2006 – by some accounts it was intended to target al Qaeda deputy Ayman al Zawahiri.  According to the Pakistani version, many women and children were among the victims of the strike, enraging the local population, driving them into the arms of local Taliban militants and fuelling a ferocious insurgency which took the Pakistan military several years to contain.

In language that could have been written today (and it has) the Guardian reported at the time that Pakistan had lodged a strong protest with the Americans over the attack and “the strained relation between Pakistan and the U.S. has been pushed to breaking point.” It blamed the botched attack on faulty intelligence on the ground.

Compare that, though, to the killing of Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in a drone strike in 2009.  His death was welcomed by Pakistani authorities, and indeed by many ordinary Pakistanis who blamed him for bomb attacks in Pakistan. Good intelligence. Specific target. And probably the high point of cooperation between the United States and Pakistan over the use of drones.

Just last month, a senior Pakistani military officer was quoted as saying the drone attacks were effective, and most of those killed were hard-core militants, including foreigners.

But then another drone attack in North Waziristan in March killed more than 40 people, prompting a furious condemnation from Kayani, who said it had targetted a jirga of tribal elders. Remember this is the same man who complained about U.S. lack of cultural understanding in 2005 – there is some consistency here.

The timing – just after CIA contractor Raymond Davis was released from a Pakistani jail – could hardly have been worse. It raised questions about whether the drone operators were working completely independently of their political masters who at the time were engaged in trying to patch up relations with Pakistan soured by the Davis affair.  (So much for U.S. aspirations to put together an integrated military-civilian-political strategy.)

Those same questions on timing came up this week when a meeting between ISI chief  Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha and CIA director Leon Panetta in Washington to repair counter-terrorism cooperation was followed two days later by another drone attack. “It may have been for a very good reason and a quality target, but the politics of it look a little insensitive,” the New York Times quoted former CIA officer Bruce Riedel as saying.

It is difficult to predict the outcome of the latest row between Pakistan and the United States. The chances are the use of drones will continue, because under the right circumstances they can be useful to both countries. But at risk of stating the obvious, airpower needs good intelligence on the ground. While some have suggested that Washington go it alone without Pakistani help, the United States does not have a great track record in the kind of cultural expertise and linguistic skills that would allow it to hire its own reliable spies, let alone identify targets and avoid killing large numbers of civilians.

Of course there are other issues. The deep distrust between Pakistan and the United States which goes back to 9/11 and indeed before. The perception in Pakistan that drone attacks are an assault on its sovereignty, regardless of whether they are sometimes effective – a perception that bolsters support for, or at least tolerance of, Islamist militants.  The arguments of those who either reject the use of force altogether in the tribal areas, or find the unmanned Predator a particularly troublesome weapon. 

But all that said, dumbing down the debate on drones into what is effectively a reframing of the “with us or against us” dichotomy is unhelpful.  More interesting would be a discussion of how and when Predator drone strikes might or might not be effective; and indeed on how the drone missile programme, whose use is still officially a secret, might be integrated into overall strategy rather than operating on a moral, legal and geographical frontier whose rules none of us know.


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