ANALYSIS: Drone strikes: some problematic assumptions —Farhat Taj - Saturday, February 26, 2011

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Local people say that the terrorists have sleepless nights due to these drone attacks. They live in fear and focus a good deal of their attention on self-preservation. Without the drone attacks that energy and attention would have been used in terrorist attacks against the Afghan, NATO and US forces in Afghanistan

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has made a series of attacks on Taliban and al Qaeda targets in FATA since 2004 using Predator drones. These strikes are part of the US-led war on terror. The drone strikes have been viewed through the prism of assumptions by some people in the international media and research communities. These assumptions are problematic.

One of these people is David Kilcullen. He claims that the “death from above” — the drone strikes — produce “outrage down below” — the targeted areas in FATA. The attacks are converting terrorist commanders like Baitullah Mehsud into Robin Hoods in FATA. The attacks are unpopular in the tribal areas. He urges the US administration to halt drone attacks because they have proved ineffective in the war on terror in terms of precision and civilian casualties. Kilcullen’s entire understanding of the drone attacks is based upon a framework he elaborates in his book, Accidental Guerrilla. The entire framework is not applicable on FATA. I will be deconstructing his framework in detail in my upcoming book Taliban and Anti-Taliban. For now, I wish to underscore that, by and large, Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla reports what his host, the Pakistan Army, has told him. There is no perspective of tribal society, especially frequently drone hit Waziristan, in his book. Accidental Guerrilla is a piece of misinformation as far as FATA is concerned. His assumptions about the drone attacks based on his book’s framework are, at best, far from the truth. Also, the US administration does not seem impressed with Kilcullen’s argument. The evidence is that the administration continues the drone attacks on FATA despite his advice.

Former President Bush’s speechwriter and author, Marc Thiessen, opposes the drone attacks on the grounds that the US is killing terrorists that the CIA could instead capture and interrogate to get valuable information. I have already questioned his argument in my paper, ‘CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan’s FATA Region and the ‘Loss’ of Actionable Intelligence: A Pakhtun Perspective’ in the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor. Thiessen’s idea that terrorists must be captured for interrogation to thwart future terrorist attacks is a good one, but not applicable to FATA due to its geography, the well established terrorist infrastructure and, above all, the Pakistani state’s dubious role as an ally in the war on terror. Again, it looks like the US administration is not impressed with his argument. The evidence: continued US drone attacks in FATA despite Thiessen’s advice.

Quoting an American think-tank with ‘expertise’ on FATA and some unnamed Pakistani sources, a recent report in the Washington Post concludes that an overwhelming majority of those killed are low-level militants or foot soldiers and only a handful of them are high value targets. According to the report, out of the 518 people killed in drone attacks last year, only two were on the most wanted list of the US.

I will not make a great deal of comments on the unnamed Pakistani sources. These sources have always planted false or, at best, distorted information about FATA in the media. The international media and researchers have shown a tendency to accept such information uncritically in complete disregard to research and journalistic ethics. The same may be the case with this report in the Washington Post.

The US think-tank referred to in the Washington Post report is the New America Foundation. Unfortunately, it too has a record of producing misleading reports about FATA. I have been questioning its reports via my newspaper columns and research papers. A recent survey by the think tank, showing that drone attacks are unpopular in FATA, is marred with serious ethical and methodological flaws. My critique of the survey will be appearing in a scientific journal. The think tank’s reports even have some factual mistakes that one would not expect from a think-tank like the New America Foundation. Their reports are not only an injustice to the terrorised people of FATA, but also unfair to Americans, who might base their opinion on the misinformation produced by the think-tank. Thus, the Washington Post report is not beyond doubt due to the sources it draws upon.

Actually, drone attacks are not the real issue in FATA. With or without the drone attacks, the terror infrastructure in FATA has to be dismantled. The real issue in dealing with the terrorist infrastructure is how to address Pakistan’s strategic concerns in Afghanistan vis-à-vis India. The US invaded Afghanistan without having addressed these concerns. Now Pakistan has no choice but to frustrate the international community’s efforts in Afghanistan through its dubious role in the war on terror. Afghanistan is too important for Pakistan to be left to the international community alone, who would most likely bring the country closer to India at the cost of Pakistan’s strategic interest. Is the international community ready to address Pakistan’s concerns? This may also mean the cultural death of the Pakhtun on both sides of the Durand Line. This would eventually endanger global security.

The drone attacks on terrorist positions must continue regardless of the number of high value targets they kill. The drone strikes have killed several dozens al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and foot soldiers in FATA, and the local people inform me that the terrorists have sleepless nights due to these drone attacks. They live in fear and focus a good deal of their attention on self-preservation. Without the drone attacks that energy and attention would have been used in terrorist attacks against the Afghan, NATO and US forces in Afghanistan. This pressure must continue on the militants.

Moreover, local tribesmen in the drone-hit areas are comfortable with the drone strikes and term them as an “airborne justice delivery system”, because the strikes are precisely killing the terrorists who have imposed a reign of terror on the people in collusion with the Pakistan state. Based upon my first hand interactions with people from the drone-hit areas, all the reports about civilian deaths and the attacks being unpopular in the area are far from the truth.

The writer is a PhD Research Fellow with the University of Oslo and currently writing a book, Taliban and Anti-Taliban

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