Thursday, June 03, 2010

Drone strategy in Pakistan being questioned

I have posted about the issue of the use of drones in war before (see Ethics, morality, and legality of robotic wars). But there is also a question of their effectiveness. Yes, the drones have been able to take out significant Al-Qaeeda and Taliban leadership in areas that are at times impossible to get to and have severely curtailed the movement of militants in the mountainous areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the same time, collateral civilian deaths in another country's sovereign territory have also sparked an outrage and an intense anti-US sentiment in Pakistan. So even if we take the legal issues and ethical concerns aside, it's not clear if there is a net gain or loss for the US. The Time Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, mentioned these drones as one of the key motivating factors for his actions (his family is from the northern areas of Pakistan). There are indeed other complicated factors that led an educated guy like Faisal Shahzad to his actions, but it is not hard to see how these drones may have triggered an emotional response as well. At the same time, without the drones, a ruthless guy like Baithullah Mehsud, may still be alive and plotting suicide attacks inside Pakistan.

I think it is quite clear the expansion of drone attacks is a folly. Yes, drones are convenient - but their ultimate cost may be too high. Even pragmatically, I would side against the use of drones. Are their any exceptions? Well...perhaps, their can be an international system of putting some known and wanted terrorists on the list (again, I'm not dealing with ethical and moral issues here) - perhaps in a system akin to the Interpol. The standards of placing people should be very very high - and as a result the list has to be very very short (Baitullah Mehsud may possibly have made the list after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto). At least this may provide some transparency to the process of target selection and may even get some international recognition. Currently, targets are selected by the US military and the CIA, and sometimes names are provided by the Pakistan government (or the military) - and we don't know how or why the lives of certain individuals have been picked to end via strike from the skies.

This is a complex issue and this technology is raising a lot of questions. We have to take a deep breath and think about its various consequences. Today's NPR had a short story on the different aspects of the drone warfare. Listen to the story here (5 min): US drone strategy in Pakistan under scrutiny.

No one will argue that the technology is seductive. Drones circle silently overhead and can watch a target for hours at a time without being detected. Then, they can strike without warning. The CIA and the U.S. military both have drone programs.

"On the one hand, they are powerfully effective at eradicating our enemies," said Samuel J. Rascoff, a law professor at New York University and former intelligence chief at the New York Police Department.

The problem, he notes, is that the killings can alienate the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"On the other hand, they might simultaneously be powerful tools at motivating our enemies," Rascoff said. "So from a counterterrorism standpoint, they are very effective; from a counterinsurgency standpoint, they raise lots of questions."

Listen to the full story here.

Also see:

Added (Jun 6): Here is a relevant short video from Newsy addressing the drone strategy from multiple viewpoints, as well as bringing up UN's ethical issues with the attacks, noting that the attacks are "a license to kill without the burden of accountability". It also shows the uncertainty and unreliability of the number of casualties. There are two widely separated numbers quoted in the video (from opposite ends of the debate) - one with almost no civilian casualties and the other with almost no meaningful targeting of a Al-Qaeeda figures. I guess the real numbers probably lie somewhere in the middle. In any case, check out this video:

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