It was Ramadan. We were about to break our fast with the children,” begins a somber thick-bearded Pakistani. “We took a bite, said our prayers. The children had just started eating when the missile struck.”The man, a resident of the tumultuous northwest region of Pakistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) had lost two brothers and a nephew in one tragic instant. However, the bomb that killed his family was not directed by a rival tribe, or by a surging terrorist network. The culprit instead was the United States.
In the unconventional war in Waziristan (a mountainous region of the FATA), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, have been a weapon of choice for the United States. Yet the question remains: are drones the most ethical and effective method for fighting terrorists? Although drones certainly have their merits, the truth is that their use has set a dangerous ethical precedent, and often drones are a self-defeating mode of war.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States has fought the war against terrorism in ways that many in the international community say lack legal and ethical justification. As evidenced by a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) torture report released in December 2014 revealing previously unknown US prison camps employing draconian interrogation techniques, the United States is very secretive when it comes to its military operations. In May 2013, US Attorney General Eric Holder shockingly announced that since 2009 four US citizens have been murdered by drone strikes without trial or jury, including 16-year-old Anwar al-Awlaki. In 2013, the UN Human Rights Council condemned drone strikes in Pakistan, declaring that the attacks were a violation of international law. The use of drone strikes is still a topic largely avoided by the US government; the Unites States does not acknowledge its covert drone operations, so the media’s scant knowledge of the attacks come from anonymous independent sources or the Pakistani government. This general secrecy in military operations, while ostensibly protecting the country’s national interests, may also be a front to keep away the skeptical eye of the American public.
But are drone strikes accomplishing their goal of weakening terrorism in Pakistan? The attacks do appear to be fairly effective in eliminating leadership of terrorist networks (as evidenced with the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, al- Qaeda’s former second-in-command, in June 2012; Hakimullah Mehsud, the former leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in November 2013; and Ahmed Abdi Godane, the former leader of al-Shabab, this past September). Often, when leadership is removed, these groups weaken or fracture and become less of a threat to the United States. Other benefits of drone warfare include its cost effectiveness and its prevention of “boots on the ground” warfare. However, faceless drone attacks may be reinvigorating hatred of the West, as new and possibly even more radical movements are sprouting up. The rapid ascent of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an active Al-Qaeda subsidiary founded in 2009, may be one example of this phenomenon.
The frightening ethical implications of drone warfare also cannot be overlooked. One common public impression of drones is that they are precise, killing mainly the target and entourage. In reality, out of 24 high- profile terrorists targeted by drone strikes since 2004, only six were killed, compared with 874 Pakistani civilians, hundreds of whom were children. In Waziristan, drones hover over villages twenty-four hours a day, striking their targets without warning. Researchers have discovered that many residents have signs of post-traumatic stress disorder: some now refuse to leave their homes. These conditions may aid in understanding why US-Pakistani diplomacy has rapidly deteriorated. During the presidency of Barack Obama, relations with Pakistan have gone from bad to worse, which is likely in response to the corresponding rise in drone strikes over the same time period. According to a Pew Poll, 74 percent of Pakistanis view the United States as an enemy, up from 64 percent three years ago. In light of this, many experts go so far as to say that the drone strikes have actually spurred on the terrorist movement in Pakistan. In the words of David Kilcullen, the former advisor to General David Petraeus,“every one of these dead non-combatants represents...a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement.”
In Waziristan, drones hover over villages twenty-four hours a day, striking their targets without warning.
As drone strikes have formed a natural rallying point for terrorists in their plan to rid Pakistan of Western influence, they have also united Pakistani politicians against the unmanned attacks, which can be viewed as a proxy for the United States and its people. While before politicians had publicly given tacit approval for the strikes, the Pakistani government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League, now condemns the attacks on its own soil. In the aftermath of a drone strike on January 4, 2015, Pakistan called for the “immediate cessation of such strikes,” and declared that the strikes“constitute a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Although there is some evidence that Pakistani officials have privately continued approving the attacks, it is evident that the drone strikes are now political dynamite in Pakistan. The diplomatic climate between nuclear-armed Pakistan and the United States has never been worse, possibly in part due to disgust over civilian killings from drone strikes.
What, then, is a more ethical and effective method of fighting the war on terrorism? According to Scott Horton, a world expert on drone warfare, more transparency in US military operations would be an important first step to begin an informed public discussion. In addition, more cooperation and support from Pakistan seems to be necessary for any success plan. After a Pakistani Taliban attack on a Karachi airport last June, Pakistan launched its Operation Zarb-e-Azb (in translation, “Strike of the Prophet’s Sword”), a massive offensive against the Pakistani Taliban that killed 2,100 militants and recaptured 90 percent of the territory in North Waziristan for Pakistan. This campaign, orchestrated with the assistance of the Unites States, has greatly weakened the TTP while remaining popular with the Pakistani public. The operation led by Pakistan has arguably been more effective in six months than the past ten years of conflict combined. For future success in the war in the FATA, strong leadership must continue to be taken by a united Pakistani military, and US drone strikes must be used sparingly, if at all.
As evidenced by the achievements of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a domestically popular war is much more effective in cooling the flames of terrorism and its anti-Western sentiments. Drones without Pakistani support have been making enemies for a decade. Radical groups use drone attacks as anti-West propaganda and Pakistani politicians ubiquitously denounce their presence. Even while some terrorist groups have been weakened by drone strikes, oth- ers have thrived in an environment of increasing enmity towards the United States. It is time that the US drone operations took a back seat to the ef- forts of the Pakistani army. According to a Waziristan civilian affected by the conflict, an end to drone strikes is more than a hope: “it is our plea.”