Michael KreponDrone Strikes in Pakistan

Drones provide essential surveillance, thereby helping to protect US forces and national security interests. Drone strikes are meant to serve the same purposes, but they have become a recruiting tool for militancy. Are drone strikes necessary, and if so, under what criteria? Do the current pattern and number of drone strikes advance or harm US national security interests?

These questions apply mostly to Pakistan, where over 300 drone strikes have taken place during the Obama administration. There are several possible explanations for strikes in the lawless hinterlands of Pakistan. The most persuasive one is that they help save the lives of US and NATO soldiers operating in Afghanistan. Other possible explanations are that drone strikes shore up a weak Afghan government, help leverage a political settlement — assuming one can be negotiated – and eliminate Taliban fighters that the administration deems to be associated with al-Qaeda – fighters that are not challenged by the Pakistani military. Drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt have grown because these objectives are entwined, and because other military means are not available.

A disentanglement of the objectives behind drone strikes could help clarify their utility. If the primary reason for drone strikes is force protection, we can expect far fewer of them once American and allied servicemen and women leave Afghanistan. If, alternatively, drone strikes have become a means to compensate for reduced US force levels, the limitations of the Afghan government and its military forces, as well as Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to sever ties with anti-US militias, drone strikes can continue to be regular occurrences after 2014 — and might extend into Afghanistan.

A durable, legal, policy framework to guide US counterterrorism efforts, which President Obama seeks, requires a prioritization of targets and objectives. Does the administration believe that drone strikes can affect outcomes in Afghanistan? How does the administration define the “associates” of al-Qaeda in “leadership” positions that pose “imminent” threats requiring drone strikes in Pakistan? Most leaders of extremist groups with global reach are more likely to find safe havens in Pakistan’s cities than in its tribal belt. As a consequence, drone strikes limited to Pakistan’s hinterlands usually aim at the body, but not the head, of militant groups.

US national security interests in Pakistan far surpass those in Afghanistan. And yet, US policy on drone strikes has weakened ties to Pakistan without having an appreciable, positive impact on the outcome of the war in Afghanistan. If drone strikes are primarily required to protect US forces as they withdraw from Afghanistan, associated penalties will be temporary in nature. Alternatively, if the administration’s definitions of “associates,” “leadership,” and “imminent” are elastic, the costs of drone strikes can continue at a high level and can expand in geographical scope.

Despite the Pakistan military’s ambiguous role in counter-terrorism efforts, it receives significant coalition support funding from the Congress. These funds provide compensation for logistical support more than anything else. Coalition support funding has not stopped the planning and execution of attacks on US and NATO from safe havens on Pakistani soil.

If the efficacy of a military tactic does not outweigh the costs of employing it, reconsideration is warranted. The steep draw-down of US forces from Afghanistan provides an opportunity for a review of both drone strikes within and coalition support funding to Pakistan. The latter can be sized to actual counter-terrorism operations; the former can be pared down greatly.


  1. Wild Wild West (History)

    Question needs to be asked who is supporting and funding these militants for years. Let me give you a hint. Your American puppets – Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar. Some the US officials have raised this issue but they have been told to shut up.

    • Magpie (History)

      Which militants are you talking about, exactly? The Afghan Taliban were mostly funded by the Pakistanis, and have fallen back on the ol’ standby of intimidating villagers out of their opium money. The Pakistani Taliban are, seriously, mostly funded by themselves – I mean, they live there and AKs are cheap. Anything else the need they get their cousin in the Pakistan army to swipe for them. The Haqqanis have buckets of local support and they’re smart as hell. They probably have share portfolios or something.

      Al-Qaeda is different, but it doesn’t really exist the way most people seem to think it does – it’s mostly a flag you can wave, a way of quickly building a reputation. And yeah, it’s pretty much an arab thing, so a lot of the money comes from bored upper-class arab fellers, and that generally means KSA (which I recently saw described as the world’s biggest medium security prison, which made me chuckle).

      It’s hardly a secret – but keep in mind that the House of Saud was one of Osama’s main targets right from the get-go (because they ‘aint nutty *enough*, apparently). It’s not like it’s a clear-cut situation there. And no-doubt there are elements in the region who think it’s in their interests to encourage instability in other areas – but hey, humans are violent and dumb everywhere. Not like the middle-east has the market cornered.

      Awesome example: the nutballs who came down to help “liberate” Mali were rolling on oil money, as you said. But the local Taureg allies pretty quickly came around to the view that – hang on, these guys are INSANE. So while the foreigners scarpered, anything that happens now with the Taureg fight is definitely not going to be taking much of anything from the KSA.

      Point being: there are LOTS of people trying to kill other people for dubious, half-arsed reasons, and money comes from just about every country on earth to one or another of these mobs of murderous dickheads. I don’t think that an acknowledgement of that fact quite deserves sinister reveal-music.

      Dum dum DAAAAH.

  2. John Schilling (History)

    To determine whether the efficacy of a military tactic outweighs the costs of employing it, it is necessary to know what the cost is. That drone strikes are an effective recruitment tool for Al Qaeda and company, is a claim often made, rarely supported by more than anecdote, and as far as I know never quantified.

    What we are particularly interested in is the marginal cost going forward. It is not obvious to me what the sign of that cost is, much less the magnitude. The most effective recruitment tool is atrocity coupled with victory – Pearl Harbor plus Doolittle/Tokyo. Drone strikes can certainly be spun as an atrocity, but they deny the enemy opportunities for perceived victory.

    Both effects are highly nonlinear. It could be that the net effect is presently negative, perhaps even to such a degree as to outweigh the material benefits of drone strikes. But I’d like to see some actual data, or even quantitative educated guesswork, before I conclude that paring down drone strikes would be a good thing.

    • krepon (History)


      Tough but necessary questions.

      Let me start with a diversionary tactic. Critics of arms control often take issue with the argument that the US should do x,y, or z to strengthen the NPT regime. Advocates of x, y, or z can’t prove benefit. Nor can they be proven right if the regime weakens, because direct causal effects are too hard to prove, at least empirically.

      Dislike of the United States is widespread in Pakistan. These dreadful polling numbers, which preceded the drone strikes, have many causes, one being media campaigns abetted by Rawalpindi. (Recall that anti-US sentiment was enflamed after passage of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill that provided large sums of non-military assistance to Pakistan.) Public opinion in Pakistan toward the United States might improve somewhat if the US stopped drone strikes altogether, but not much.

      So, the reason for doing drone strikes, dramatically reducing them, or stopping them has to do with efficacy rather than public opinion. I cannot see much in the way of efficacy, but I cannot measure lives saved. I can only read about body counts of enemy combatants and noncombatants. I do not have confidence that the counters know how to distinguish between these categories.

      Hate is far more consequential than dislike. Hate doesn’t show up in polling data. Hate is immeasurable until it turns into explosive violence. What’s the correlation between hate driven by drone strikes and explosive violence? I don’t have the methodology to tackle this.


    • John Schilling (History)

      The obvious approach would be through the interrogation of captured terrorists and insurgents; those are the people whose hatred of the United States is consequential, and it shouldn’t be hard to find a representative sample. And while interrogation of prisoners can be arranged to provide just about any answer you want, it can usually be arranged to provide the actual truth – if one is interested.

      Of course, this requires that one be a government or army with access to a large population of captured terrorists and insurgents. I sincerely hope that the governments presently engaged in this conflict are taking that job seriously and that their present policies are based on accurate intelligence in this area, but it is intelligence that is presently(and perhaps must or should remain) classified.

      On this side of the curtain, I do suspect that a combination of opinion polling and investigative journalism, asking the right questions, could provide at least good educated guesses. Unfortunately, most of the guesswork I see is offered by people who either never set foot in Pakistan, or clearly made up their mind before they went. I tend to agree with your assessment – and you would certainly know more than I – that we aren’t likely to see broad changes in public opinion either way. Whether there might be significant changes out in the tail of the distribution, at the margin between “intense dislike” and “murderous hate”, that’s where we need to ask the right questions and listen to the perhaps unpleasant answers.

      If you come across anyone doing the asking, please point the rest of us in their direction.

    • Magpie (History)

      Targeting Pakistani Taliban has very close to zero efficacy for the US. They’re not fighting the US. So there the argument is easy: on the face of it, there is no benefit to drone strikes. It’s all risk and no return.

      Only if there is a political end – and there has to be – then you can argue that the net outcome is positive. Someone somewhere thinks so, anyway. But to argue that strikes against local groups (who have little-to-nothing to do with activities against the US) are countering some imminent danger, or saving American lives, is silly. Intelligence secrets aside, some of these groups simply are *not* operating outside of Pakistan / Kashmir. So actions against them cannot save Americans, and can only (possibly) result in the *loss* of American lives – the potential for increased extremism aside, local agents die on occasion while attempting to direct the attacks.

      So is the benefit in propping up the Pakistani government? Again, I’d argue that it is not. The unrest in the region is only fed by violence and a sense of injustice. There are no factories to bomb, no masterminds to eliminate, just angry Pashtuns with copious access to their quite Spartan requirements for fighting.

      There is this common thread for humans to have difficulty accepting that other humans are as human as they are. After 9-11, were Americans defeated, cowed, ready to give in to demands? No. They wanted to hit back at any cost. Why does everyone seem to assume other people are different?

      So however much the government of Pakistan (or whoever has decided to target Pakistani Taliban folk) might think that they can be defeated by killing a few thousand of them is wrong. Short of the sort of wide-spread massacres that are well out of fashion now days, killing members of a local majority ethnic group is worthless in fighting an insurgency, and only fans the flames.

      …now Afghan Taliban and Arab al Qaida folk, that’s a different issue. There are limited numbers of them in the FATA, and it’s quite feasible to attrit them below thresholds needed to be operationally valid. That’s fine. Go nuts. It could even win over the locals – even when you get collateral casualties – since it could be seen locally as a risk attached to the foreign fighters, who aren’t popular anyway.

      But targeting local groups is just all kids of wrong.

  3. Peacemaker (History)

    Few observations and queries:
    – “…eliminate Taliban fighters that the administration deems to be associated with al-Qaeda – fighters that are not challenged by the Pakistani military.” If that is/ was so, how do we explain several U.S. officials – including your – contention that the U.S. and Pakistani military have an understanding on drone strikes. In Stimson Center piece of October 25, 2012 it was written, “…Pakistani authorities privately request them and if the targets are legitimate.” What was the Shamsi Airbase meant for? If Pakistani military did not want to challenge fighters, why would it cooperate with the U.S.?
    – “as well as Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to sever ties with anti-US militias…” Are there any pro-U.S. militias?
    – “Most leaders of extremist groups with global reach are more likely to find safe havens in Pakistan’s cities than in its tribal belt…” No empirical evidence of this assertion has been made in this article! Or does the author suggest that target killings through drones be extended to cities?
    – “…drone strikes are primarily required to protect US forces…” These are primarily the “light footprint” policy that the current U.S. administration has. Try to achieve the mission without any boots on ground. “Protection of US forces” seems to give a legal cover of the “right of self defence.”
    – “Despite the Pakistan military’s ambiguous role in counter-terrorism efforts, it receives significant coalition support funding from the Congress. These funds provide compensation for logistical support more than anything else. Coalition support funding has not stopped the planning and execution of attacks on US and NATO from safe havens on Pakistani soil.” If that is true, why are Pakistani citizens and military loosing so many men in terrorist attacks? The February 26, 2013 article in Dawn read, “…civilian casualties in Pakistan rose to 3,007 in the past year, an increase of roughly 300 fatalities from 2011.”
    Stimson Center article of October 25, 2013 contended, “The deaths of innocent civilians from drone strikes represent a small fraction of this carnage. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) didn’t begin this reign of terror because of drone strikes, and they won’t end it if the drone strikes stop…”
    Final Comments:
    A. It would be a good idea to do a head count of how many militants has Pakistan sent to hell compared to NATO/ ISAF in Afghanistan.
    B. What would be the views on Secretary Hagel’s 2011 speech – this is the exact transcript, “There are some histories where Aghanistan and Pakistan have had similar interests, but mainly they have not had similar interests. India is another piece of it. India for many times has always used Afghanistan as a second front and also India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border that can be carried out into many dimensions but the point being [that] the tense, fragmented relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been there for many years.
    What would be India is also using Afghanistan to assist dissident forces within Baluchistan in particular apart from sponsoring secessionist tendencies in Sindh as it has been doing for long.” Here is the link to video http://www.vidproxy.com/permalink.php?url=xIQ0pQ5KYfPxWSu2MueIUEqG6h4V1AQY88f71wGygrVsKonHjf2G63eHD97NT9x0GPWJYZBIWeFZzGyzYDk5Ig%3D%3D
    C. It has been contended that drone attacks are not be the cause for terror incidents. Well, would someone like to shed light on the assertion that the over decade long occupation of Afghanistan has increased extremism and terrorism in Pakistan and eroded public support?

  4. Magpie (History)

    Alright alright, first: note well that there are two Talibans. Different people, different objectives, same name. Poor policy, but there you go. The Afghan Taliban are not terribly welcome on the Pakistan side of the border – they can only manage it as part of that pan-Pashtun sporting league: fighting anything that moves. Pashtuns fight. It’s what they do. As I said on another thread, the question of how to get Pashtuns to stop killing you is one of those zen riddles without an answer.

    (I doubt many Pashtuns would find that description offensive, either. Dey badass).

    But anyway, the Pakistani military has managed some effective action against the Afghan Taliban, and the locals do not like them. Bloody foreigners. The locals care even less about arab al Qaida blokes. There is room to move. Room to cooperate (as long as the cooperation does not have any American flags stamped on it). You could, possibly, win some hearts and even, gosh, some minds.

    The problem there is that the drone strikes are hitting local boys, too. The Pakistani Taliban are massively unpopular with the distant Pakistan government, but the locals like ‘em. The Pakistani government also has the problem of having such a lot of Pashtuns in their army, poorly mitigated by rural Punjabis – it’s very difficult to motivate them to go kill their own folk. Honestly, the TTP are not realistically a threat to US interests anyway, so the question is: why the hell is the US engaging them? Is it part of some deal with the Pakistani government? Is it too hard to sort out which particular band of scruffy militants you’ve got in your sights?

    I reckon the most likely case is that Pakistan is picking some of the targets, probably in return the Pakistani government continuing to turn an ineffectual eye to repeated violations of their sovereignty. And if that’s the case, I think it’s a terribly short-sighted attitude – neither will get anything good out of it in the long term. Generating a whole new batch of enemies is a Poor Idea from a long-term US point of view, and the Pakistanis should know by now that you’ll never kill Pashtuns out of fighting you. It doesn’t work that way.

    …unless they’re actually trying to redirect some of those nuts with AKs against the US (‘Find Them Another Target’ being one of those almost-right answers to the Pashtun riddle), in which case it’s a doubly poor deal for America, and is still unlikely to seriously dent the local groups’ membership numbers.

  5. JM (History)

    All interesting and important questions in this comment, particularly “How does the administration define the “associates” of al-Qaeda in “leadership” positions that pose “imminent” threats requiring drone strikes in Pakistan?”. To the extent that they haven’t been answered, what has the drone warfare campaign amounted to until now? Willy-nilly mayhem and killing?
    Also, what does “the lawless hinterlands of Pakistan” mean? Going by the questions in the comment asked, the most we can really say from our distant westernized perspective is potentially or actual lawless drone strikes. Who worried about these hinterlands before US-NATO forces started conducting cross-border ground and air strikes?
    By the way, in the most recent Foreign Affairs America’s savvy #1 warrior Stanley McChrystal says only recently have we (which if I recall means soldiers, not the political leadership in Washington) started to ask basic questions about what’s really going on in Aghanistan. If true, what have we been doing for the past 10 years that amounts to anything positive for the people of that country?
    Finally, Chicago had 500 murders in 2012. Do we talk about the “lawless hinterlands of Chicago”?

    • Peacemaker (History)

      @ JM:
      Good comments. Colin S. Gray wrote an excellent chapter “Strategy in the Nuclear Age: The U.S. 1945 – 1991” in the book “The Making of Strategy:Rules, States, and War.”
      I am sure the worth contributors at the ACW have already seen the excellent commentary by Gray. Yet is worth reading to understand “…what have we been doing for the past 10 years [in Afghanistan and elsewhere] that amounts to anything positive for the people of [those countries]?”
      American strategic culture has few peculiarities:
      1. Relative insensitivity to other cultures.
      2. Finding quick/ short-term “technological” solutions to social issues.
      3. Haste to get in and a greater haste to get out…leaving a mess of affairs to return to at a greater cost!

  6. Mantej (History)

    if pakistan can be given a nuclear deal like what india got, all the drone strikes argument will vanish. I can bet you that pakistan army/state would be more than willing to take 50 drone strikes for every day, if offered nuclear deal.

  7. krepon (History)
  8. Gregory Matteson (History)

    There has already been a major independent academic study of this topic by Stanford and NYU, including extensive video. Activism resulting from the study has already accrued a website at http://livingunderdrones.org/
    Which answers a lot of the basic questions ‘on the ground’ questions which are so often dismissed as unknowable.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      There has also been extensive criticism of the methodology and data and analysis of the Stanford/NYU research. It’s not clear if they got a good picture of the locals’ beliefs about the situation or analyzed it in an unbiased manner. Certainly the followon work was not unbiased.

      The reality is that going back to the Soviet invasion at least, there have been airstrikes, artillery bombardments, mines, infantry and tank attacks, helicopter strafings, etc. of all sorts over the relevant areas. The “sudden death from above” ascribed to the Drones is only one of many forms of sudden death that have been happening for 38 or so years, longer than the average age of anyone there. A large part of the population have never gone a year between combat incidents within their lifetime personal experience. Some of those were very up close and personal, with the Taliban reign of terror when they ran the country, or with Soviet soldiers.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      Mr. Herbert, I am having trouble understanding the context of your response. I went back to the PDF of the study to make sure wasn’t confusing the study with something else. Soviet invasion? Infantry and tank attacks? Helicopter strafings? 38 years or so? The primary study area is Waziristan, in the Pakistan tribal area.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Were you unaware of the cross-border attacks during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the ongoing Pakistani Army activity (including airstrikes, helicopter attacks, and artillery) throughout the region?

      I generalized slightly, but there has been extensive combat across the border region (more intensively on the Afghan side, but significant on the Pakistan side) for decades.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Unfortunately, the answers provided by the Stanford/NYU study are almost exclusively in the form of anecdoes and quotes, which is not particularly useful. Furthermore, virtually everything that Stanford/NYU has to say about drone strikes in Waziristan, was also true of manned air strikes in Germany and Japan 1942-1945. As the end result of the latter process was the transformation of two archetypes of militant fascism into two of the most unbelievably pecafeul nations on Earth, both strong allies of the United States for generations, I am disinclined to conclude that Stanford/NYU has proven that drone strikes are a bad idea.

      We need a way to distinguish between airstrikes which are likely to lead to desirable outcomes (e.g. the WWII type), and those which are not. Factors which do NOT seem to be relevant to making this distinction include:

      Most casualties being low-level militants who do not directly threaten the striking power

      Large numbers of dead civilians

      Extreme disruption of civil life; PTSD among survivors

      Target selection by executive decision without due process

      Negative opinions of the striking power among the target population during the conflict

      These factors are common to effective and ineffective air campaigns. It may be that even an effective air campaign might ultimately be rejected on the grounds that e.g. the civilian casualty toll is disproportionate to the benefit, but that’s not really the same thing. We need answers to both questions, and we’re mostly getting sloppy thinking and scary stories instead.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      More than slightly. Of course we can argue till doomsday over the real extent of military activity in Waziristan because it is so remote and inaccessable, partly by design. This is why it is so easy to criticise the study methology. But I digress: I would be curious to see any evidence of largescale ongoing modern warfare in Waziristan continually over the past 38 years. They may all be Pashtuns, but these are the aborigenal people of the area, or as close to it as you please. The civilian population are deeply rooted, and are largely Pakistani citizens. I actually kind of hate to take on the role of bleeding heart liberal, but the study interviews could only be grossly dismissed by assuming that those clever backcountry villagers are engaged in a vast Talibani plot to put one over on the naive infidels, whom they never dreamed existed before they were contacted for the study.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      I think Mr. Schilling makes an interesting point regarding the effect on the Japanese and German peoples. Unfortunately the Japanese model doesn’t seem to have worked out very well in North Korea, where our carpet bombing literally drove them underground, and seems to have bent their national psyche back into the extreme bitterness and xenophobia common to historical Korean and Japanese states. Nor did the Japanese model work out well for President George W. Bush, who stated that, conquered, Iraq would be just like Japan after WWII. Japan was as far as I understand history, unique in the level of common culture, and in the role of the Emperor, who actually had the moral authority amongst his nation to persuade them to “bear the unbearable”. And besides, Japan actually had some ‘democratic’ traditions.

      As for Germany, it tends to be forgotten, largely because the Allies wanted it to be forgotten, that much of the first five years of occupied Germany looked a bit like Iraq after our invasion. There were lots of die-hard Nazis, and lots of very ugly handling of the occupation, most notably by the French.

      Ultimately, I think, Germany and Japan were lastingly persuaded to the ways of peace because as merchant nations free from massive military expenditures, they have attained lasting levels of prosperity undreamed of by their Fascist fathers.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Lots of die-hard Nazis, perhaps, but do we really care how hard or easy they die? What matters is how frequently they kill Americans, and the number of Americans killed by German Nazis after VE-day seems to be zero. Likewise Americans killed by Japanese after VJ-day. About 40 Americans have been killed by North Koreans since the 1953 Armistice, and perhaps a similar number by Vietnamese since 1975.

      Four nations subject to intense aerial bombardment by the United States. Four very different cultures, different religious and ethnic makeup, different levels of economic development. One subsequently occupied for several years by the U.S. Army, one by mixed allied armies, one by the Chinese Army, and one never occupied at all.

      So the theory that aerial bombardment inevitably, or even usually, results in bitter hatred and a bottomless pool of recruits for terrorist groups bent on revenge, does not seem to fit the facts. As there are alternate explanations for the ongoing violence in e.g. Waziristan, I remain skeptical of “It’s the drones, stupid”.

  9. George William Herbert (History)

    Alternately, a complete failure to effectively defeat, occupy, and rebuild a country leaves it as an enemy or in shambles.

    Iraq was by no means effectively occupied or rebuilt, by WW 2 standards, or any reasonable current standard.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      So how does this work out for the Pashtun region, large parts of Afghanistan, and Waziristan? They are landlocked, and have little chance of great success as global merchants. Remote, rugged, populated by strongly tribal people who have successfully attrited invaders for at least 2500 years; which is a key reason, along with the ability to do it, for our resorting to war by remote control.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Frankly, we fucked up twice on Afghanistan in a monumental level, first when Bush / Rumsfeld didn’t buy into a massive aid program to help improve the Afghan’s lives significantly (they did some, but not nearly enough), and again when they got strategically fixated on Iraq and focused on that for ~ 6 years.

      In terms of what we can do, we could at least bring infrastructure that would matter (real electricity, water, better roads, healthcare, education). That has been done in places, but not enough or effectively. By a factor of probably 4 to 10.

      The war by remote control was because the Army wrote areas off for the occupy and build relationships program because of insufficient manpower. See insufficient initial commitment, Iraq distraction. That we’ve found it convenient to expand wildly doesn’t make it better than an effective occupation and aid program would have been. Less US casualties, but not more effective.

  10. Bill (History)

    I am wondering why if they are so ineffective they’ve been continued.

    I’m just not happy we have the whole story here and I hesitate to joggle elbows when there is so much clearly still concealed under the surface appearance of events.

    Don’t we obtain at least a tactical advantage from constraining the contacts the ones in the cities have? How quickly can they grow new “officers” and “noncoms?” (I mean of course those organizational functions, not that there are literally such ranks among them.) And we’re also ablating their personnel in these crucial roles; plans like 9/11 don’t grow on trees and the less of them are smart enough to dream them up, isn’t that the better?

    What other hidden advantages, other than, as you say, direct force protection might there be? I’d want to be a lot more sure there weren’t advantages I was ignoring than I am now before discontinuing it when I can already see two tactical advantages to it.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      We certainly don’t have the whole story. In fact we know very little about what is going on in Waziristan, which is the prime focus of the covert drone war, other than propaganda from all sides: Please note that there are most certainly more than 2 sides, e.g. the native villagers, the several distinct Taliban organizations, the Pakistani State, the U.S. Government, Afghanistan, the various Pashtun tribal leadership, Al Qaeda, Saudi financed missionary madrases. I can think of more, but that gives an idea.

      While it is true that the Stanford/NYU study is ‘anecdotal’, they tried very hard to make sure the anecdotes were first person accounts, giving us benighted civilians our only window so far into the experience of Waziri civilians. If that information is biased and insuffucient, then you need to look to our Government, which is conducting the drone war in such utter secrecy that even Senators and Congressmen in relevant committees have to fight for scraps of information on it. Not healthy for democracy.

  11. J House (History)

    Suppose the US did not yet have drones capable of conducting airstrikes. Would this admin risk putting American pilots over Pakistani airspace and the consequences of a captured pilot in the hands of the ‘enemy’? Very doubtful,because the political risk is too great.
    Technological means and capabilities have trumped strategy, just because ‘we can’.
    There will come a time that this strategy will haunt the U.S. Unlike nuclear weapons, the technology is easy to acquire and master on a local level (i.e., minus satellite communication and control). UAVs like ‘switchblade’ will be difficult to defend against (especially swarms)and the genie can’t be put back into the bottle. Imagine the secret service trying to defend the President or other world leader in a public setting from a swarm attack of UAVs the size of a smartphone, packed with plastic explosives.
    We are entering a new era.

  12. SuperSean (History)

    First of all love this thread. This blog has one of the most productive and collaborative comment sections.

    @ J House-

    1. drones are not the only unmanned option; the admin could also lob cruise missiles
    2. The Secret Service & armed forces does have a plethora of tools at its disposal to defend against the drone swarm scenarios. Our signal corps could indeed be our strongest technical advantage in modern warfare

    @ M Krepon

    If we change our strategy and end drone strikes and/or change the way we interact with our adversaries, there are tangible ways to valid the effectivity of these modifications. Example: Strategy X would have a goal of reducing insurgent IED attacks by providing employment in electronics fields to current & potential bomb makers. If participation in the program increases and attack decrease then the program can be considered a success.

    Reducing collateral damage casualties in conjunction with a strategy of engagement in my opinion would cause a drastic reduction in the # of what I refer to as “reluctant insurgents”(driven by personal tragedy). The “ideological insurgents” should be dealt with by special operator in combination w cloak & dagger ops

    • J House (History)


      There is too much latency between the time the target is acquired and attacked using cruise missiles, since they are programmed to hit a fixed target and would be launched outside of Pakistani territory. The Air Force does have a stand-off capability with other weapons systems but you run into the same problem.
      With predator/reaper, you can acquire, fix and kill within a few minutes, in an ideal situation. The decision loop is much, much shorter time frame
      Firing a cruise missile off the coast of Pakistan may take up to an hour for the missile to arrive on target…no good if your target is moving or has relocated to another position.
      In addition, the missile must overfly Pakistani airspace for a considerable time, making it vulnerable to counter attack (or missile failure).

    • krepon (History)

      J House:
      Speaking of “reluctant insurgents,” check out Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
      Admittedly, we are dwelling at the tectical level here. At the tectical level, certain uses of drones can be worthwhile or counterproductive — just as certain countermeasures against IEDs can be more or less effective.
      If the entry into a prolonged land war in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, or Asia is a terribly bad decision, tactics cannot rehabilitate the absence of strategy. In my view, the prosecution of post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been strategic blunders.

  13. J House (History)

    About signal jamming and drones, I agree that our govt. has a good toolset to lay an electronic net around the President and also jam positioning satellite signals, but it isn’t completely foolproof.
    For example, the inertia of the air vehicle itself may be used in the terminal phase of a swarm attack (i.e., prior to reaching the Net) and all electrical components would be unnecessary at that point, especially on a fixed line of sight target.
    I don’t want to go into further detail or discuss a jam-proof warhead and give anyone ideas, but it is very possible to do this.
    If you have ever seen up close video of the presidential motorcade you can see the interference caused by this hardware. Drive anywhere near Fort Meade and your GPS is nothing but a paperweight.
    Regardless, there are countermeasures using mechanical and kinetic force that renders all of it useless.
    We may reap what we sow one day… I hope not.