Lean vs. Hughes: U.S. Drone Program is Counter to Foreign Policy Goals

“There were no bodies, only body parts — hands, legs and eyes scattered around. I could not recognize anyone. People carried away the body parts in shopping bags and clothing or with bits of wood, whatever they could find."

These are the words of Pakistani tribal elder Malik Faridullah Wazir Khan describing the carnage that resulted from a March 17, 2011 drone strike in North Waziristan. The so-called “precision bombing” killed more civilians (80) than any other American attack since 2006 and ignited a blaze of anti-American sentiment among once-friendly regional leaders who are now calling for revenge.

In a recent post supporting the continued use of drones in Pakistan, my PolicyMic colleague Laura Hughes suggested that the Pakistani military’s aversion to root out terrorists and cooperate with American foreign policy initiatives in the country leaves the United States with no option. The drones, in her words, must “get back to work.”

While Hughes outlined a series of statistics that point to the alleged effectiveness of drone strikes, she overlooks recent reports suggesting that the American and Pakistani officials have intentionally suppressed the number of civilian deaths. According to the Conflict Monitoring Center (CMC), an estimated 2,043 people have been killed by drone strikes over the past five years, the majority of them civilians. Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, noted a similar disparity in July of 2009, saying that for every one militant killed, ten civilians also die.

The CMC also raises questions about the U.S.’s definition of a militant. “People in the tribal belt usually carry guns and ammunition as a tradition. U.S. drones will identify anyone carrying a gun as a militant and subsequently he will be killed,” the report notes. Just last week, two American servicemen were killed when a Hellfire missile, deployed by a drone, mistook them for insurgents. Nevertheless, Hughes broadly brushes over the reality of civilian deaths, calling them “regrettable.”

Beyond the debate over effectiveness, Hughes also failed to understand a deeper, more damning consequence of continued drone use: political backlash. While the United States’ remote-controlled mission over the mountains of Pakistan seeks to hunt out terrorists, it may actually be creating more of them. Following the deadly drone miscalculation in mid-March of this year, tribal elders in Pakistan’s North Waziristan Agency announced that they would wage jihad against Americans in retaliation for the civilian deaths. “We want to avenge the killings. We never forgive our enemy. I allow suicide attacks on Americans,” Malik Jalal Sarhadi Qatkhel, head of the North Waziristan Peace Committee said.

In the event that one may doubt the sincerity or plausibility of this threat, December 30, 2009 serves as a bone-chilling reminder. In a massive blow to American foreign policy in the Middle East, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian man described as an “important asset” to U.S. efforts against Al-Qaeda, blew himself up at an airbase in Afghanistan. The blast killed seven CIA workers who were responsible for choosing drone targets — a military practice al-Balawi despised.

His deadly revenge on the United States proved more costly than initially expected. The 32-year-old doctor was, before his defection, working with intelligence officials to capture or kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician and Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man.

Hughes suggestion that drone attacks have limited the frequency of Zawahiri’s radio messages rings hollow when compared to the opportunity that the strikes cost the United States. It may be argued that the drone program is one reason al-Zawahiri is still on the run.

It is time to ground U.S. drones and seek to achieve our military objectives in Pakistan through other, more manageable, means. Remote-controlled war (even though no war has official been declared on Pakistan) is counterproductive to U.S interests and will ultimately lead to more radicalism in the region. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Nathan Lean

Nathan Lean is the Research Director at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. His three books include, most recently, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (Pluto 2012). Nathan's writing has been featured in the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Salon, The New Republic, and others. His newest book, The Changing Middle East, will be released by Rowman and Littlefield in 2015.

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