General Petraeus has handed in his Christmas wish list, and the top item is more drones to fly the friendly skies of Pakistan, Yemen, and wherever else the CIA “clandestinely” operates half a world away. I like seeing a hellfire missile make a known terrorist look like an extra from The Walking Dead just as much as the next guy, but what are we getting ourselves into with an endless expansion of our targeted killing campaign?
One thing is for certain: President Obama is a big fan of the CIA and Defense Department’s lethal Predator and Reaper drone programs, and why not? These campaigns have killed a large amount of known and suspected terrorists in places the U.S. military can’t legally put boots on the ground, like the no man’s land tribal areas of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, Waziristan, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that spit out anti-Western derelicts like mosquitoes from a tepid puddle.
However, at what cost are we using this ultra lethal asset, and to what end do we expect to gain from it?
The cost to civilians that live within these areas is the first and most important tragedy of the program. Estimates of civilian casualties are hard to nail down, and the administration assures the press that every effort is made to minimize civilian deaths. But the stated target parameters indicate that anyone who is a military-aged male and is caught in a questionable position may become a target. Given that, a 12-year old boy with a rifle who happens to live in a sketchy area may get whacked if the Reaper drones happen to spot him near other nefarious looking characters.
Then there is the fact that drone strikes may become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the U.S., as the campaign fuels the cycle of anti-Western terrorism to the point of perpetuity.
There have also been reports of drones unintentionally attacking rescue personnel in follow-up strikes after the initial bombing of a target. Further, the legality of such attacks falls into a sort of no man’s land, since border sovereignty technically isn’t being breached by military forces. However, one could argue that political sovereignty is being assaulted since the drone strikes call into question the effectiveness of Pakistan’s government in stopping such attacks, leaving the Pakistani people vulnerable.
After the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad, Pakistan has proven it does not have the resolve to retaliate when its national sovereignty is called into question. The U.S. is taking advantage of a country that both sides know has very little recourse.
Which brings me to the fact that the endgame of the drone program along Pakistan’s border doesn’t look good for Pakistanis. As the U.S. winds down its campaign in Afghanistan, it will rely more on drones, intelligence personnel, and other types of covert warfare to beat down remaining terrorist elements.
While Pakistan could alleviate this issue by taking a stronger stance against terrorism within its borders, it has neither the manpower nor political capital to do such a thing, given that the Haqqani network — a well-trained hodgepodge of Taliban and Al-Qaeda thugs — is very capable of making life miserable for Pakistanis when the regime acts against their interests.
Further, Pakistan knows the U.S. can’t stay in Afghanistan forever, and hedges its bets by covertly sponsoring the Taliban to keep Afghanistan from slipping into civil war after the American withdrawal.
So what’s a CIA director to do? Given his limited options, it seems that Petraeus needs to stay the course on the drone program in Pakistan. He has clearly seen the writing on the wall, knows the U.S. is pulling out, and is readying the agency for the coming escalation in covert warfare.
Unfortunately, Pakistani civilians are just the latest group of unfortunate souls that will have to bear the weight of the world’s greatest power’s national security interests.