On Monday, August 20, I had the pleasure of attending the American Security Project‘s event on U.S. Drones Policy: Strategic Frameworks and Measuring Effects. I say that it was a pleasure because, unlike most discussions on drone policy, this one was based on facts and empirical data rather than politics and speculation. The event was moderated by Joshua Foust, Fellow for Asymmetric Operations at ASP and columnist for PBS and The Atlantic Monthly. The panel of speakers consisted of Aaron Zelin, Fellow at The Washington Institute and the editor of Jihadology.net, Will McCants, research analyst at CNA, adjunct faculty at the John’s Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the editor of Jihadica.com, and Christine Fair, assistant professor in the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University and renowned expert on South Asia and Islamist groups. Following a discussion, there was a brief question and answer session.
Foust introduced the event and explained its focus. Rather than examining tactics, legal frameworks, or particular strikes, the session aimed to take a strategic outlook and discuss long term effects. Such a discussion is necessary because though our drone campaigns have had numerous tactical victories resulting in many high-value target eliminations, the strategic benefits are more dubious and have often been called into question. Yemen provides a great example. While we’ve efficiently killed many terrorists in Yemen through drone strikes, opponents of the program contend that those quick victories are not worth the political backlash that the strikes have generated. Current strategic decision making with regards to drones is also lacking, and usually amounts to sending drones wherever we have a hard to reach problem.
Fair picked up where Foust left off by drilling down into a specific dimension of the drone strategy, the campaign in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA. Fair gave the disclaimer that as a unique area in Pakistan, FATA was a special case within a special case. Our partnership with Pakistan is complicated as some of our enemies are their friends, some of their enemies don’t concern us, and these relationships are constantly shifting. FATA is particularly unusual as the Pakistani legal code does not apply and instead they are governed by the Frontier Crimes Regulation, a holdover from colonial days that calls for collective punishment and establishes no law enforcement, meaning that FATA relies on the Pakistani military and the Frontier Corps.
With these as the alternatives for targeting terrorists, even at their worst, drones are the least horrible option. The Pakistani military is imprecise, kills many civilians, and has displaced millions of people. As for the effects of drones, we don’t know much. The Pakistani media is notoriously unreliable and is often bought or influenced by known military and intelligence disinformation campaigns. For their own safety, locals are unlikely to answer questions and, if asked whether there are terrorists among them, will naturally deny it so as to avoid future strikes or terrorist retaliation.
A lack of transparency also adds to perceived civilian casualties. As Pakistanis don’t have birth certificates, it’s hard to prove that a civilian existed, let alone that he or she was killed. One way to verify the number of dead is to observe burials, which are extremely important in local culture. Though this technique is rarely used, confirming burials greatly reduces the number of alleged civilians killed. Also, both terrorists and the Pakistani military typically operate in areas of strikes, so it takes forensics not currently employed in FATA to determine which of the dead were killed in a strike and which were killed earlier. If Pakistan were really serious about finding all of this out, it would allow journalists and the United Nations into FATA to examine it, but instead it prefers to use civilian deaths to fuel anti-Americanism. With the Pakistani military, Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, and American CIA obscuring the data surrounding drone strikes, we may never have a clear picture, which is problematic as even moral questions depend on empirical evidence and facts on the ground.
The rest of the panel as well as the question and answer session will be covered in an upcoming post. You can also read a review and watch a video of the discussion here.