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Pakistan’s Cringing Soul: Stop Unmanned Aerial Warfare

In March 2011, an American drone circling above Pakistan’s North Waziristan released three missiles on a gathering of village men. The meeting was not a clandestine one: it was a meeting to settle a dispute over a chromite mine, not to place an improvised explosive device. Most of the 40 or so killed were civilians.

The U.S. started it’s drone program in 2004 but in the last three years there has been a rapid increase in the frequency of these unmanned strikes. Press reports suggest that the militant-civilian death ratio from these strikes is 80%, yet even accepting this figure, over 500 Pakistani civilians have been killed since 2004. Is the large human cost worth the prevention of Taliban expansion? More importantly, are these strikes actually hindering Taliban expansion?

In the eyes of the CIA, looking at “favorable” statistics militant deaths might be enough to justify the tactics. However, it is bemusing how they fail to view the situation from a much simpler yet equally powerful perspective of the innocent residents of Pakistan caught in the foray of war. Actions during war have consequences, even more so on those that affect the civilian population. The drone strikes present a new façade of war with an “emotional cost” that is hard to measure. Certainly, while the CIA sees drone strikes as tactical victories against the enemies, the emotional spillover effects do far greater damage in the long run. In militant infested areas, the loss of a parent, sibling or child due to drone strikes will not cause Pakistani civilians to refer to the 80% militant/civilian casualty ratio; instead they will naturally use their emotions to rationally explain such terrible events. This in effect, breeds a sort of vicious cycle, where if continued, cannot be stopped. These people affected by the “unannounced” drone strikes are more likely to pledge allegiance with the Taliban, as they view such attacks on a personal level rather than an ideological standpoint that the United States is trying to counter. They feel the need to pick up a gun, and they would feel pride in detonating a suicide vest at the expense of the U.S. More people will go to Madrasah’s rather than schools, more anti-American fervor will rise, and as thus the threat to the U.S. will proliferate.

Military tactics throughout history are studied and a “military-industrial complex” has developed over the past six decades to reach the ultimate goal that has eluded powerful nations: how to wage a war with zero casualties on its side. The drone program is one giant step towards achieving this goal and has effectively removed the emotional cost of war, but for only one side. There is someone sitting comfortably in front of a television screen bombing areas on the other side of the planet. For others, this “video game” means the tragic death of a family member, one without any ties or any relation to the Taliban; a family that now has firm enemy, the United States. This policy essentially breeds terrorism. Soldiers are directly accountable for their actions whereas drone ‘pilots’ cannot fathom the consequences of their endeavors.

President Barack Obama, under whom the rapid increase of strikes has occurred is liable legally to act in such a way under the under the September 2001 authorization that “all necessary and appropriate force” can be used “to prevent future acts of international terrorism.” Can the actions undertaken by the U.S. be deemed fair if they are not only making a controversial decision on the effectiveness of the strikes, but also as collateral damage fostering the death of hundreds of innocent men, women and children? Is this not “international terrorism” itself?

The justification that the ‘U.S. hasn’t experienced terrorist attack since this policy was undertaken’ is an oversimplification; it’s a vague argument that’s marketable to the American people, but cannot be deemed true. For example, there has been a rapid increase of attacks in Europe and other parts of the world and terrorism has definitely not backed down. U.S. internal security is the most likely cause for the lack of attacks there, and so the Islamic fundamentalist organizations form new targets.

In November 2011, a NATO another drone strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. These soldiers, trying to eliminate terrorism, were gunned down by people on their side of the battlefield. Does the U.S. really believe they’re eliminating terrorism by such means? The question here is about both the humanitarian foundations of the policy and the effectiveness of it.

If the U.S. actually spent a proportion of the sum spent on drone warfare on rehabilitating the education facilities and infrastructure in those areas, they would find increased long-term success. Education should be the “silent” weapon of choice that influences individuals with a twenty-first century eye on morality that would condemn acts of terrorism carried out by the Taliban.


 Sameer Tayebaly


(Display photo credit: Department for International Development)

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  1. Elias Kuhn von Burgsdorff

    And what would be the short-term alternative to drone strikes in western Pakistan? Not only is education very much a long run tool, but using it as a “silent weapon” to counter the insurgency in Pakistan’s tribal regions far outreaches U.S. policy turf – encroaching Pakistani sovereignty. Moreover, Pakistan is already one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, and while a lot of that sum is targeted at the military, a considerable sum is designed to bolster social programs, such as education. Thus, such a policy rests on the government in Islamabad. Yes, drone strikes do fuel anti-U.S. resentment, but with the lack of a better alternative, they must persist as long as insurgents – Taliban – take refuge there from the ISAF troops in Afghanistan.

  2. Térence Brandicourt

    I enjoyed this article so, thanks. Over 500 civilian casualties in Pakistan since the beginning of aerial drone attacks in 2004. This is no small number. On September the 11th, close to 3000 individuals were lost, and the result was War. I’m obviously not putting these events on the same scale but, it is hard to imagine a worse way to rehabilitate Pakistani-US relations and quell anti-US resentment in the area . And, Yes, US aid is helping fortify education in Pakistan, which in the long-run is a superb endeavor. Regardless, taliban insurgency is an ongoing War, which in itself is an instrument of US foreign policy. Does the fault lie with the technology, policy, or human error ? Also, had we not used drone technology but manned aircrafts, would the result be any different ? Soldiers make mistakes; are they less likely to do so behind a computer screen or faced with actual danger ? Something to think about. Thanks again.

  3. Also, another problem is that “education” as you say is often subverted in order to spread and indoctrinate vicious fundamentalist ideologies – drone strikes are not the causal force behind terrorism or anti-U.S sentiment – there is some endogeneity in militancy, particularly regarding the ideological/doctrinal and material support for insurgent groups by the Pakistani secret services. Increasing education is not the panacea for insurgency – it may even be hijacked and subverted by toxic elements.

  4. Here are a few thoughts/ fact:
    If interested, you should real David Kilkullen’s the Accidental Guerilla (2006), his thesis: foreign intervention in grey zones, which already have radical Islamist elements, alienates the local population, thus making the latter sensible to extremist ideology and rhetoric, and fueling a cycle of violence. The U.S. should move towards a population-centric approach instead of an enemy- one.

    Also, last time I checked, U.S. drones are used in six countries: Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, with some overflying over Iranian borders.

    The reference to video made me think of military contracting firms in Iraq who have deals with the visual electronic industry for training.

    The Talibans are only one actor in the middle of regional dynamics: the U.S. has to deal with the Pakistani government, and they are on tense terms. Islamabad is also playing between both Washington and Beijing alliances (China is hoping to gain influence in the Indian ocean). Pakistan is trying to influence Afghanistan and Kashmiri politics. The military industrial complex (which has been strengthened by US/China) and internal security services have also rogue elements and underlying networks, and are reluctant to see their state’s sovereignty breached by the U.S. There is also nuclear deterrence involved with India…

    We have to question a short-term driven American policy making in the region, as well as acknowledge the balances of power between different states.

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