06/04/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Striking the Right Balance: The Utility of Drone Attacks in AfPak

Co-authored by my colleague Max Kelly.

In early April an editorial in a major Pakistani newspaper, the Daily Times, expressed a decidedly un-orthodox view about drone attacks. The editors opined:

Since the media in Pakistan is formally against the drone attacks, efforts were made on several TV channels on Wednesday night to get the anti-drone stance of the public confirmed. But all Pashtun reporters covering Orakzai refused to give the drones a blanket stamp of disapproval. Asked why Orakzai was attacked if it was not geographically linked to Afghanistan, the answer was: it was attacked because it had become a stronghold of the TTP and foreign terrorists since the last one year and was clearly seen as a threat by the Americans as a training resource for those who attacked across the Durand Line.


When asked if the drone attack in Orakzai will provoke the local population into becoming anti-American, the Pashtun reporters told the TV channels that unless collateral damage became widespread enough to include the local population, there was no chance of an anti-American feeling. They said that the population was completely under the despotic rule of the TTP and would actually want the drone attacks to continue to lessen the severity of TTP control on them. Had Pakistan any sovereignty left to counteract the TTP, the local population would have fought against the terrorists.

[TTP stands for Tehrik-i-Taliban, a confederation of Pakistani Taliban groups led by Baitullah Mehsud. The group has been increasingly active in the tribal areas and beyond, and is responsible for the recent fighting in Swat and Buner.]

In support of these assertions, they cited polling carried out by the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy. Normally we are skeptical of polling carried out in the region because of problems with survey design, cultural differences, and a general lack of transparency. Healthy skepticism should be maintained. However, while we can't personally vouch for the poll, Aryana does appear to have a significant local presence in the tribal areas, which helps assuage some concerns about its reliability.

With these caveats in mind, here are the headline results:

-- Do you see drone attacks bringing about fear and terror in the common people? (Yes 45%, No 55%)

-- Do you think the drones are accurate in their strikes? (Yes 52%, No 48%)
-- Do you think anti-American feelings in the area increased due to drone attacks recently? (Yes 42%, No 58%)
-- Should Pakistan military carry out targeted strikes at the militant organizations? (Yes 70%, No 30%)
-- Do the militant organizations get damaged due to drone attacks? (Yes 60%, No 40%)

Meanwhile, Pakistani politicians have upped the ante in their rhetorical war against the drone attacks. Foreign Minister Qureshi's blunt criticism of the drone attacks and claim of a "trust deficit" during a press conference with Richard Holbrooke were reported in glowing terms by the Pakistani press.

Why the disconnect between opinions in the tribal areas and those expressed by politicians and the national media? Pakistani politics are dominated by the Punjab, the state home to a majority of Pakistanis and the country's traditional center of gravity. Conversely, as Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations detailed in a recent report, the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are subject to a unique system of governance. The most relevant features of this system are that the major national political parties are legally barred from running for seats in the FATA and that national legislation and decisions by national and regional courts do not apply in the region. Thus the political system in the FATA is both stagnant and disconnected from mainstream Pakistani politics. There is no formal mechanism through which the views captured by the Aryana Institute's survey could influence national policies.

This raises difficult questions for US policymakers: how to balance the tactical effectiveness of drone strikes in eliminating key Al Qaeda (AQ) operatives with their impact both on the local struggle against the TTP, and on Pakistani public opinion and US relations with a government which we need to become an effective ally.

US officials are well-aware of the dilemma. In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, leading counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism expert David Kilcullen recommended that drone strikes should be treated as "an absolute, and rarely invoked, last resort" used only under highly restrictive conditions. In an interview with Wired he explained that "If we want to strengthen our friends and weaken our enemies in Pakistan, bombing Pakistani villages with unmanned drones is totally counterproductive."

Echoing that sentiment and taking it a step further, Nicholas Schmidle of the New America Foundation recently wrote that:

The Taliban cannot be defeated militarily, as the Americans have learned in Afghanistan. You kill one of them and immediately create 10 or 20 or 50 more. Bombing their strongholds merely breathes life into the insurgency. It is not just that ordinary Pakistanis tend to sympathize with the Taliban when they are under attack but also that the Taliban ably turn each bombardment into propaganda, play themselves up as victims, and attract more foot soldiers.

Schmidle argues that the US should forget about efforts to roll back the TTP in FATA and Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) for now, and concentrate instead on immunizing the Punjabi heartland of Pakistan against the further spread of extremism.

These arguments -- particularly Schmidle's -- are based on the assumption that drone strikes kill civilians, or at least are widely perceived as doing so. Human Rights Watch's generally positive assessment of pre-planned strikes in Afghanistan raises questions about the former, and the Aryana Institute's poll results raise questions about the latter. To the contrary, Aryana's results suggest that kinetic actions such as drone strikes aren't intrinsically alienating to the inhabitants of the FATA and NWFP. Rather, they suggest that the attitudes of civilians directly threatened by the targeted Al Qaeda operatives and insurgents are contingent upon the strikes' accuracy and the severity of civilian casualties. It's not whether we strike, but how precise and effective we are. Conversely at the national level, among those Pakistanis who have so far not faced insurgent violence firsthand, these drone attacks are widely viewed as infringing upon Pakistani sovereignty and national pride.

The Aryana Institute's study, while only one data point, complicates an already complex picture. Even as the TTP have expanded their control, tribal militias in FATA and NWFP have fought losing battles against the better armed and organized militants, reflecting the deep divisions within that population. Public opinion in Punjab has been shaken by the recent attacks in Lahore. Clouding the issue even further, a recent article suggests that militants may be moving out of NWFP and the tribal agencies into Pakistan proper to avoid drone strikes. This reduces the strikes' effectiveness and suggests that, rather than increasing or decreasing the threat, we may be displacing it to unknown second and third order effects.

Determining what role -- if any -- drone attacks should have in our emerging strategy to stabilize Pakistan requires a careful, fine-grained examination of the various elements of the situation, and a rejection of preconceptions in favor of evidence. Finding a way to conduct effective tactical counter-terrorism operations without compromising counterinsurgency in Pakistan or Afghanistan should be a U.S. priority.