Attack of the drones

April 12, 2009 at 3:44 pm | Posted in International | 1 Comment

In the wake of the recent anti-terror raids around Manchester and Liverpool, we’re back to a question which has flummoxed pundits and politicians ever since 9/11: what do would-be terrorists want from us, and, if we give it to them, will they then stop plotting to blow us up? Returning from a recent fact-finding trip to discover what’s turning young Pakistanis to terror, Labour MP Saddiq Kahn reports a rather unusual grievance; they blame Britain for the deaths caused by the US’ drone attacks in the country’s remote border regions. The problem with this is that Britain isn’t involved in the US’ bombings, and even if we were to openly criticise the American policy of sending unmanned drones to kill members of Al Qaeda, I’m not sure this would have much of an effect on people who’re evidently too lazy to find out which country is doing the bombing.

But whilst distancing ourselves from this plank of the Obama administration’s Af-Pak strategy won’t make Britain any safer from those who gorge on fantasies of death, I think it’s right that we should be questioning the efficacy of these raids and ask whether they’re really serving the long-term interests of either America, Pakistan or Britain.

The US began sending unmanned drones into Pakistan during the Bush administration, with the aim of killing senior Al-Qaeda operatives, depriving Jihadist groups of a ‘safe haven’ to train, proselytise and plot carnage, and stemming the leakage of militants into Afghanistan. As I’ve mentioned before, Pakistan lacks both the will and the resources to deal with these groups on its own: they don’t have the ability to conduct counter-insurgency operations, members of their security forces are suspected of collaborating with jihadist groups, and just two months ago, the Zardari government was forced to surrender the Swat Valley to the Taliban because there was no chance of them holding onto it by force.

But air assaults are no kind of strategy for dealing with insurgencies, and there have been far more innocents killed than genuine terrorists. According to figures compiled by Pakistani authorities, of the 60 drone strikes America has conducted over the past three years, only ten were able to hit their targets, only 14 Al Qaeda leaders have been killed, but 687 civillians also met their deaths. This would be an unacceptable figure in any circumstances, but for a country which is trying desperately to repair its image in the Muslim world, it’s utterly counter-productive.

Not surprisingly, the drone attacks are deeply unpopular throughout Pakistan, and whilst the policy was concocted to ensure stability of the Pakistani state, over the longer-term it threatens to weaken that state further as people realise that no amount of official protests from a weak Zardari government will stop the US from continuing its operations.

The effectiveness of these strikes towards ensuring both Pakistani & American security objectives is now being questioned across the political spectrum. On the right, Daniel Larison warns that “each time we violate Pakistani sovereignty, we undermine popular support in Pakistan for military operations against the Taliban. As a practical matter, this has worked to improve the political fortunes of our enemies and worsen those of our allies.” Meanwhile, liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias identifies the strikes as a “serious destabilizing factor in Pakistan”, and that “everyone admits that it doesn’t provide a long-term solution to the issue it’s designed to solve.”

I think everyone agrees that Pakistan is currently one of the most dangerous places on Earth, and that action should be taken to ensure this failing state doesn’t fall into the hands of those who would inflict great suffering upon ordinary Pakistanis and great turmoil on the rest of the world. But what was intended as a short-term measure to target known terrorists has started to become a routine tactic, and one which threatens to further undermine that country’s stability. If the Obama administration is truly serious about using ‘smart power’, then maybe it’s high time for a rethink.


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  1. […] be a massive step forward. And if Obama could come around to seeing the self-destructiveness of the drone raids, then you’d have a summit from heaven. Either way, things certainly have to improve; solving […]

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