Hidden costs of US's drone reliance
By Brian M Downing
With the change of presidents in 2009, many observers expected to see a decline
in unmanned aircraft strikes inside Pakistan. After all, these drone attacks
were widely seen as part of the George W Bush administration's heavy-handed
approach to going after terrorists along the AfPak line. The Barack Obama
administration, many thought, would curtail the program in favor of subtler
Instead, there were 53 strikes from Predator and Reaper drones last year, the
first year of the Obama administration, a rise of almost 50% from the 36 in
2008, the last year of the Bush administration. The 2010 total is on track to
be three times the 2008 level. Clearly, the new administration places more
emphasis on drones in its war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Drones may be helpful in bringing about a settlement in Afghanistan but they
might also seem an attractive alternative to
large-scale conventional deployments for policymakers. Like many military
innovations, this could lead to new forms of unwary undertakings.
Targeting insurgent leaders
The main goal of the drone strikes is the assassination of key personnel in
al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani group and the Pakistani Taliban
(Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan - TTP). Unlike troop concentrations and industrial
targets, neither of which is found in this conflict, targeting specific people
requires excellent local intelligence: What does a specific person look like?
Who are in his network? How many hideouts does he use? How many uninvolved
civilians might be killed? And most importantly, where will he be at a specific
The US almost certainly has special forces and intelligence officers in
Pakistan's tribal areas, but local intelligence is based mainly on information
from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Pakistani intelligence has
had working relationships with most of the insurgent groups whom it sees - or
used to see - as allies against India, specifically in Afghanistan to the north
and Kashmir to the east. The ISI's help in identifying targets has varied.
Since the TTP made its ill-considered attack into the Punjab last year, the ISI
has ably identified leaders of its erstwhile client group, leading to the
deaths of Baitullah Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud and several other figures. Drone
strikes, in conjunction with the Pakistani army's ground campaigns in the Swat
Valley and south Waziristan, have inflicted severe though probably not mortal
blows on the TTP.
The drone campaign began as an effort to kill Osama bin Laden and other
al-Qaeda leaders who in late 2001 escaped from Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountain
range into Pakistan's tribal areas. The campaign has been moderately successful
in killing mid- to high-level personnel, but as US officials have pointedly
noted to Pakistani leaders, bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri,
have inexplicably not been found. Nonetheless, the campaign has damaged
continuity in al-Qaeda's command structure. Intercepts indicate consternation
in the leadership as they fear sudden death from unseen aircraft and suspect
many of those around them to be informants.
Until recently, there has been only occasional and largely token ISI help in
finding Taliban leaders. Though there is a Taliban shura (council) in
the North-West Frontier Province city of Peshawar, most of the top leadership
operated near Quetta in western Pakistan - just across the porous frontier from
the Taliban homeland in Kandahar.
However, when the US warned of expanding the drone campaign into western
Pakistan, the Quetta shura fled to the port city of Karachi where they
disappeared into the millions of Pashtun refugees there. US (and possibly
Chinese) pressure has led to Pakistan's arrest of several Taliban leaders. This
is a remarkable occurrence that implies ISI's longstanding knowledge of
militant whereabouts, though the denouement of the arrests remains unclear.
Critics of the drone campaign argue that attendant civilian casualties are
stirring anti-American fervor and destabilizing the frail government in
Islamabad. A plausible if not compelling argument, but one that time and events
have made less compelling. As noted, the TTP's attack into the Pakistani
heartland turned public opinion. Militants warring along the frontier or in
Afghanistan could be tolerated, but not when they drive toward major cities and
threaten the way of life there.
Anti-American sentiment has not waned, but the public looks upon drone strikes
on the TTP, if only grudgingly and in private, as helpful in maintaining the
economic and cultural advancements over the decades. Further, TTP rashness
brought unity to heretofore bitterly antagonistic civilian and military leaders
and also a measure of political stability that seemed unlikely only a little
more than a year ago.
Even prior to the TTP attack, the drone campaign might have been pressuring
Pakistan, in a Byzantine and risky way, to cooperate more with the US.
Anti-American fervor places US interests and perhaps its embassy in danger -
the embassy was burned in 1979 - but the fervor more directly threatens the
Islamabad, then, has more to lose than Washington if anti-Americanism becomes
too strong. Better to give up some increasingly useless allies than reap the
whirlwind of popular animosities. In any event, many drones operate from
Pakistani air bases and the government can order a halt should it feel gravely
endangered by them.
Local elders in the tribal areas know of the presence of al-Qaeda and Taliban
notables hiding in their village or town, and so elders might be getting blame
for the destruction visited on their locales. The Hellfire missiles and Paveway
bombs may be wearing down trust in elders and the venerable custom of granting
refuge to fugitives upon which militant notables rely.
Arab-Pashtun relations had been less than harmonious before al-Qaeda fled into
Pakistan. During the war with the Soviet Union (1979-1989) many locals found
the Arab volunteers condescending and irksome (an oft-heard complaint in Iraq
as well). Arab jihadis, many of whom became the basis of al-Qaeda, saw their
Pashtun hosts as uncultured and uninspired rustics. Locals resented being
looked down upon for their impure understanding of Islam and lack of devotion
Counter-insurgency inside Afghanistan
Though less well known than their work over Pakistan, drones are widely used
inside Afghanistan against insurgent forces. The aircraft include the Predators
and Reapers, which perform reconnaissance and can carry missiles and bombs, but
also smaller, less familiar craft such as the Raven and Wasp, which perform
reconnaissance missions only.
There isn't evidence that drones have been especially successful in countering
the Afghan insurgency. Occasionally, regional commanders are killed, but almost
all Taliban leaders are replaceable and there has been no discernible effect on
the insurgency's ability to parley with locals and win support. And civilian
casualties from drone and other air strikes contribute to insurgent support.
Drones maintain aerial watch and ward along the AfPak frontier and make
infiltration riskier than it was during the Soviet war in the 1980s. As with
the drone campaign across the frontier, local intelligence is critical; the
country is vast and the countless hiding places are well known to insurgents.
Many local tribes are supportive of the insurgents or intimidated by them,
while others are indifferent but unwilling to help outsiders.
The counter-insurgency program recently begun in earnest in southern
Afghanistan seeks to establish local intelligence networks. Such programs build
schools, wells, and the like in an effort to win over the support of villagers,
and are followed by efforts to set up militias and intelligence forces to
defend the area from the insurgents' return. The development of local
intelligence networks will be one of the key indicators of the
Greater local intelligence will be helpful in eroding the resolve of
rank-and-file insurgents. Most of them do not fight owing to ideological or
religious fervor. Instead, they fight for pay or because respected elders have
allocated them to insurgent forces following negotiations. They are vulnerable
if not prone to war-weariness, which was in evidence among mujahideen during
the Soviet war and also during the Taliban's long wars against the northern
peoples that followed.
Negotiating point in a political settlement
Reports of negotiations between insurgent leaders and the Hamid Karzai
government have emerged in recent months and drones may play an important role
in furthering them and in bringing about a settlement. They may help wear down
insurgent resolve, but more importantly they constitute a crucial point in any
The more zealous insurgent leaders look back on the past several years of
success and feel confident they can expel the foreign forces and once again
rule Afghanistan. More practical leaders, however, know that as long as the
drones are overhead they can never become a meaningful government.
Whether the drones fly from Pakistan or northern Afghanistan or any of the many
regional powers hostile to militancy, the Taliban cannot set up administrative
and communication centers and other necessities of government. They must
negotiate a settlement with Kabul and the West or remain a ubiquitous but
perhaps war-weary guerrilla band, unable to establish itself anywhere openly
for fear of sudden aerial assassination.
Precise terms of a negotiated settlement of course cannot be known at present.
But preliminary talks are being conducted and no doubt the drones constitute
one of the US's strongest bargaining chips, and one of the Taliban's greatest
The use of drones presents an appealing alternative to large numbers of
conventional troops in fighting terrorists and insurgents. The introduction
into Afghanistan of large numbers of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) forces was bound to lead to an insurgency as the troops would be
interpreted as simply the most recent foreign powers to occupy the country. The
insurgency has lasted several years, strained the NATO alliance, and required a
sizable and costly escalation.
Used in conjunction with local intelligence personnel and a small number of
special forces troops, drones likely could have inflicted serious damage to the
al-Qaeda organization in eastern Afghanistan that directed the terrorist
attacks on the US in 2001, without the large and off-putting presence of
We are seeing this alternative put into practice in Yemen, where al-Qaeda and
insurgent groups are being countered by local intelligence and US technology.
Oddly, one of the first drone strikes was in Yemen when the al-Qaeda figure
responsible for the attack on the USS Cole was assassinated in 2002 - a
promising augur whose import went largely unnoticed by political and military
leaders, who, in keeping with conventional wisdom, embarked on large-scale
operations elsewhere in the region.
Drones, then, might be an appealing alternative to large-scale and ensnarling
military responses. But they might also be a seductive alternative - one that
gives distant and rarely judicious policymakers the illusion of quick,
seemingly costless success with little fear of unforeseen consequences.
Brian M Downing is the author of The Military Revolution and
Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in
America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.