After a few weeks of quiet, the drone debate has surfaced again in the U.S.
The past week has seen at least two drone strikes in Yemen. One reportedly killed the Ansar al-Sharia leader of Abyan province and the Long War Journal claims the latest attack , launched missiles at,
“two fighters “as they left a farm on a motorbike” in the Khobza area of Baydah province”
A year ago, all the talk of terrorism, counterterrorism and drones centered on Yemen. The media has lost interest in Yemen over the past year and while the pace of drone strikes appears to have decreased; their use has not gone away.
More interesting, an article from the Huffington Post I read yesterday that was published in 2010 entitled “Drones over Pakistan: Menace or Best Viable Option?”. This article is a must read. Dr. C. Christine Fair had spent months in Pakistan researching the drone issue and, similar to Christopher Swift’s take on Yemen last year, found a very different perspective on the drone debate inside Pakistan. She spoke with a senior Pakistani officer and:
This senior officer himself attested to Pakistan’s own inability to eliminate key threats and the necessity of the drones to eliminate terrorists in a way that most effectively minimizes the loss of innocent lives.
As for those stories that recount the psychological damage placed on populations by the buzz of drones, Fair contrasts with this anecdote:
“Another interlocutor explained that when children hear the buzz of the drones, they go their roofs to watch the spectacle of precision rather than cowering in fear of random “death from above.”
While I’m sure there have been mistakes in the use of drones in Pakistan, Fair says in Pakistan,
This antipathy towards the program is due in large measure to the collaboration of Pakistan’s media to sustain tenacious criticism of the program by spreading suspect civilian casualty reports planted by the militants themselves or various “agencies.”
Well, what should we think? As readers of this blog, you likely know my stance, “Go Drone With Some Modifications” (See here and here). However, the debate often centers around one’s perception of innocence and a which is more noble: means or ends. This is where it all gets really tricky.
COIN proponents like the notion of winning “hearts and minds” and this sells well to the public as the means ‘feel’ just. But in actuality, COIN in Pakistan means Pakistani army and militia invasion, which creates immeasurable casualties over time. Drones, on the other hand, ‘feel’ evil, but I believe kill more precisely than any other tool and if I had to choose between a drone strike or sending in a tribal militia – I’ll go drone every time. (Did you see above, we just hit two dudes on a motorbike! it doesn’t get much more precise than that.) Again, both parties, drone critics and drone advocates, will swing the number of civilian casualties in their favor because there is no clear definition of the enemy and the U.S. isn’t overly clear about its use of the tool. Would Osama Bin Laden’s wife be considered a militant or a civilian? Were the people in an AQAP member’s house hit by a drone strike militants or civilians? What about the house across the street from where the missile strikes, militants or civilians?
Drone critics have made some progress, I believe, in curbing the use of drones. The pace of attacks has decreased overall it seems. I assume this is either due to public pressure or that the U.S. may be running out of targets. However, critics of drones are unlikely to make much more progress in reducing drone use unless they can provide a viable counterterrorism alternative to drones – America’s most effective and efficient counterterrorism tool. While critics protested publicly during the hearings, I’ve heard little from them since Brennan’s confirmation. If drone critics remain concerned about their use, they must sustain a real campaign against their use and provide plausible alternatives. The truth is: both political parties and most Americans are big fans of drones as long as they aren’t aimed at them.
The mantra I’ve seen repeated amongst drone critics has been that the U.S. use of drones will result in “blowback” against the U.S. While I agree this is conceivable, this repeated “you just wait, this is going to come back to haunt you” argument needs to come with some specific predictions if it is to be treated seriously. I’ve listened to this argument against drone use for more than two years now. (See here and here) If there is going to be “blowback” for the U.S. use of drones, when will there be “blowback” and where will there be “blowback”? Be specific. To say there will be a terrorist attack from Yemen again, or from Pakistan again, will surely be correct, but these attacks may have only some or no relation to U.S. drone use.
Conversely, the option “to not use drones” over the past several years must be discussed by those that criticize drone use. For example, I believe if the U.S. had not developed and implemented the use of drones in Pakistan, al Qaeda would be stronger today than it currently is, the U.S. would be further engaged in Afghanistan providing more troops for a longer period, and the TTP and al Qaeda would maintain a strong foothold in Pakistan’s frontier that would further destabilize Pakistan and yield more terrorist attacks against the West. Likewise, I also believe the success of drones in Pakistan has sent al Qaeda to seek alternative safe havens – one of which is Yemen. In Yemen, without the use of drones, I believe the U.S. would be committed to a larger ground presence and further entanglement with dubious allies in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Additionally, I believe the U.S. would have suffered more attacks from an AQAP whose external operations, led by Awlaki, would have continued, increased and improved with time. While my assessment, due to the course of history, cannot be proven right or wrong, I can see the logic for why the U.S. chose to pursue drone strikes and I believe it outweighs the arguments for not using drones. For drone critics, they must qualify their prophecy about the long-run effects of drone use. I’ve heard the drone “blowback” argument for at least three consecutive years now and, while I respect it, I’m not convinced.