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The Ill-Logic of the U.S. Predator Drone Campaign

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William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of the law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast. Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of the law, for my own safety's sake!

A Man For All Seasons

With the U.S. already having cut down every law in the forest when it comes to terrorism in the last 9 years, there was nothing left for Barack Obama's war cabinet to do but risk a hazardous new escalation of its AfPak war following the attempted bombing in Times Square by Pakistani Taliban-trained Faisal Shahzad.

The administration sold its own version of the Afghan war originally by narrowing it to hunting Al Qaeda in Pakistan regardless of the moral, ethical, legal or even political consequences. It continues to claim success in its greatly expanded use of Predator drone assassinations. But as the administration scrambles to counter something that was apparently beyond what it thought possible, it must now face the grim reality that warfare, no matter how high tech or expensive, is and will continue to be a two way street. It must also finally face up to the fact that its glaring lack of sophistication in its dealings with Afghanistan and Pakistan have made the U.S. more vulnerable to attack and not less.

The entire strategy for a draw-down of U.S. forces in 2011 rests on the blindly unrealistic assumptions that a NATO-trained Afghan Army and police force can somehow magically replace American "boots on the ground," while the drone campaign will deter the enemy's leadership from acting effectively and frighten away potential recruits. Up to now, the administration's policy has rested on the claimed effectiveness of these strikes to weaken the Taliban and make them more receptive to a peace agreement that would bring them into the Afghan government. But in a gaping breach of logic, the possibility that they might actually retaliate on U.S. soil, was never even factored into the equation.

The efficacy of assassinating Taliban and Al Qaeda suspects with such weapons challenges at least two major assumptions. The first is that the weapons themselves are not a technically suitable replacement for human counterinsurgency forces (which in and of themselves are beset by problems). The second and perhaps more important, is whether high tech warfare - with all its imperial-death-from-above implications - isn't actually self-defeating, given the negative political impact it has on the local population. Critics of the Predator attacks have warned of the potential blowback for years.

In 2004, Robert A. Pape, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago warned of the negative consequences of an over reliance on drone technology in a Foreign Affairs commentary. "Decapitating the enemy has a seductive logic. It exploits the United States' advantage in precision air power; it promises to win wars in just days, with few casualties among friendly forces and enemy civilians; and it delays committing large numbers of ground troops until they can be welcomed as liberators rather than conquerors. But decapitation strategies have never been effective, and the advent of precision weaponry has not made them any more so."

According to counterinsurgency experts David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum, the strategy of predator drone strikes in Pakistan fails on all counts by creating a siege mentality among Pakistan's civilian population, "exciting visceral opposition across a broad spectrum of Pakistani opinion," while actually being only a "tactic," masquerading as a "strategy," which only "encourages people in the tribal areas to see the drone attacks as a continuation of [British] colonial-era policies."

Kilcullen and Exum explain the ill-logic of the U.S. Predator campaign. "Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people's houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn't it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war."

Drone attacks and targeted assassinations have already opened a Pandora's box of legal demons for the United States that will someday have to be faced. On February 14, 2010 the Washington Post reported on the gory details of how the administration had come to deal with the inflammatory legal issue of jailing terror suspects by choosing to kill, rather than capture those it deemed terrorists. But, in the ten days following the failed terror attack in New York, instead of pausing to reconsider the consequences of such draconian tactics, the U.S. responded by threatening Pakistan with a direct U.S. military "boots-on-the-ground" expansion while accelerating pilotless attacks in the tribal area of North Waziristan even further, firing 18 missiles on May 10, alone.

That the Obama administration continues to believe its response to the "almost" Taliban attack in New York will "soften up" Pakistan's Taliban after 9 years of softening, is a bad omen for America. Having already discarded the "benefit of the law," for our own safety's sake, it will only be a matter of time before the devil comes knocking again.


Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are authors of Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story published by City Lights, January 2009. Their next book Crossing Zero: The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire will be published by City Lights February, 2011. Visit their website at www.invisiblehistory.com.
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