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The Perils of Predator Drones in Pakistan

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The situation in Pakistan is deteriorating by the hour. This nuclear-armed nation already plagued by political and economic turmoil now faces a massive humanitarian crisis, as 500,000 people flee the Swat valley in the face of armed conflict between Pakistani authorities and Taliban extremists who have taken control. As President Obama prepares to meet with Pakistani President Asif Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai tomorrow, the question becomes what the U.S. can do to prevent all-out war in Pakistan.

An article in New York Times today presents three potential strategies for the Obama administration to pursue in the coming weeks: 1) hasten the long-term strategy of retraining the Pakistani army to fight the counterinsurgency while upping nation-building efforts; 2) rely on more Predator drone strikes and covert ground attacks; and 3) make sure Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is secure from the extremist threat. While the Obama administration may have its back against the wall, authorizing more Predator drone attacks is a disastrous option that must be avoided at all cost.

As David Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency expert who designed Gen. Petraeus's Iraqi surge, recently told the House Armed Services Committee, "We need to call off the drones." This covert plan, first approved by Bush (and continued by Obama) to skirt Pakistan's refusal to allow U.S. troops into the country, uses unmanned aircraft remotely controlled by the CIA to hunt down suspected terrorists and insurgents. But as Kilcullen claimed, it's backfiring, prompting more Taliban extremists to take up arms against the U.S.-backed Pakistani government and driving them deeper into the country.

Kilcullen explained:

"Since 2006, we've killed 14 senior Al Qaeda leaders using drone strikes; in the same time period, we've killed 700 Pakistani civilians in the same area. The drone strikes are highly unpopular. They are deeply aggravating to the population. And they've given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of extremism. ... The current path that we are on is leading us to loss of Pakistani government control over its own population."

In addition to the 700 innocent Pakistani civilians killed, the UN estimates drone strikes have displaced hundreds of thousands more people. One can only imagine the inordinate amount of chaos and devastation caused by more drone strikes, as they become a recruiting tool for Islamic militants spurred into action against the Pakistani government and U.S. interests.

Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote recently, "Using [drones] in response to a worsening situation has not only failed to achieve President Bush's or President Obama's goals, it has fueled anti-American animosity on the ground in Pakistan." What's more, drone attacks aren't even being used to target the al Qaeda terrorists who supported the 9/11 attacks. As Zenko noted, the majority of recent attacks have targeted the jihadist leader Baitullah Mehsud's network, which seeks to topple the Zardari government and allegedly had a hand in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In other words, our government seems to be losing sight of the initial goal of these strikes in an effort to prop up the deeply corrupt, unpopular Zardari government.

Zenko's conclusion is an important one to keep in mind. "By being forced to battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban with flying robots from above," he assessed, "US leaders are put in a position where they remain largely unaware or uninterested in the serious negative consequences that the strikes have on the ground in Pakistan. At the very least, US officials should be more forthcoming in defending the use of drones and therefore open their use up to public debate." That is the key here. We have to press for transparency and accountability before the Obama administration decides to expand drones attacks and costly covert operations that kill more innocent civilians, create more support for extremists, and push Pakistan into a war that could be prevented through non-military means.