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February 24, 2024

Death from above: the CIA's disastrous drone war

By NIKKO PRICE | November 30, 2011

After a NATO aircraft mistakenly targeted and killed 24 Pakistani troops at a border checkpoint last Saturday, Pakistan-United States relations have dropped to an all-time low. Enraged over the attack, Islamabad has shut off U.S. supply routes to Afghanistan and ordered the CIA out of Shamsi air base, which the agency uses to carry out its unmanned aerial drone program.

The U.S. government, however, has spent months preparing for this eviction by building up the drone program elsewhere; drones will simply fly from Afghan air bases and then cross into Pakistan. And the program as a whole shows no signs of slowing. Quite the contrary. Since taking office, Obama has dramatically expanded the use of drones, which have killed more than 1,500 suspected militants on Pakistani soil, according to government officials. Drones are widely considered the primary weapon used by the U.S. in the fight against Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

For clarification, the U.S. government runs two drone programs. There is the Air Force's version, which is publicly acknowledged, and which operates in the actual war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. These drones are "piloted" from remote locations and target insurgents who pose a direct threat to U.S. troops. Then there's the CIA's version which also uses drones piloted from remote locations, but is aimed at terrorist suspects all over the world, including countries in which there are no recognized wars. This version dates back to the Bush Administration and is never publicly acknowledged by the U.S. government. The CIA drone program is the one currently operating in the tribal regions of Pakistan and the one condemned almost universally there.

According to a Pew Research poll conducted last year, 93 percent of Pakistanis who have heard about the CIA drones have an unfavorable view of them, while 59 percent of Pakistanis view America as an enemy. In addition, Pakistan's parliament has demanded an end to U.S. drone strikes and many high-level Pakistani government officials have publicly condemned the attacks.

The implications of this animosity are far-reaching and Obama's build-up of the drone program is ill-advised and imprudent. Continuation of the CIA's drone warfare in Pakistan will further exacerbate relations and lead to an ultimate destabilization of the Middle East, spelling disaster for American efforts in the War on Terror.

Pakistan plays a vital role in our efforts to stabilize the Middle East. A prosperous, modernizing and friendly Pakistan is regarded as a must-have for American foreign policy. Specifically, the Pakistani government is the leading force at the negotiating table for peace with the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, with whom the U.S. refuses to negotiate. Losing Pakistan at the negotiating table will inevitably lead to an uptick in violence and destabilization of an already fragile region.

Also, Pakistan maintains a prolific nuclear weapon arsenal and has less-than-friendly relations with neighboring India; maintaining diplomatic talks between the two nations and thus avoiding mutually assured destruction is seen as a top priority for the U.S. State Department. If the U.S. loses Pakistan's support, it'll also lose its cooperation in these integral negotiations. The result of such loss might well be nuclear war.

Pakistan is also one of America's closest partners in bringing terrorists to justice. The Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's premier intelligence agency, has received hundreds of millions of dollars from the CIA since 9/11 to aid in the process of interdicting terrorist activity. Without Pakistan's help, the country will simply degenerate into another safe haven for terrorists — an absolutely devastating blow to U.S. efforts to rid the Middle East of its notorious reputation for harboring terrorists.

Finally, by doing Pakistan's work for them — by killing its criminals — the U.S. will come to portray Pakistan as weak and ineffectual in maintaining its own security. Lieutenant General Ahmed Pasha, the director of Inter-Services Intelligence, has admitted that the strikes "have become a major source of embarrassment for the Pakistani government" because it has been blamed for "failing to stop a foreign power from killing its own citizens." If Pakistan becomes regarded as weak, the door will open to an alternative source of governance. Unfortunately for Pakistan and much of the Middle East, the alternative is rule by the Taliban or other extremist groups.

In the tribal regions of Pakistan, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, this nightmare is already a reality. The Pakistani government has virtually lost its authority, and for all intents and purposes, the Taliban is now in control. The same is true in the tribal regions of Afghanistan, where the Taliban has established its own legal and educational system, separate from those of President Hamid Karzai's government.

But drone attacks on Pakistan don't just erode U.S. goals of stability and peace, they undermine its goals in the War on Terror by sabotaging U.S. support in FATA. U.S. government officials have continuously neglected to mention that about 90 percent of those killed in the drone attacks are low-level militants, most of whom are unidentified. And according to New America Foundation, about 20 percent of those killed in the strikes are civilians.

Because the evidence to justify a strike is often gleaned from a paid Pakistani informant (who might call the strike simply to ensure his continued paycheck) or from a camera flying thousands of feet above the earth, it's often impossible to distinguish an actual terrorist from a simple courier. Furthermore, the drones "flown" by the CIA are piloted by civilians, often intelligence officers and private contractors who aren't required to have any flight experience. These civilian "pilots" control the drones with electronic joysticks and monitors similar to those used in video games. It's much easier to kill people — even innocent civilians — when the killer is so utterly disconnected from the repercussions of his actions.

To this end, if the CIA's true goal in these drone attacks is to dismantle and disarm terrorist organizations, killing civilians and low-level insurgents isn't going to do the trick. The operating structure of these terrorist groups is such that the death of one member has a minimal, even negligible, impact on the organization as a whole.

What's more, with the increasing death toll and "success" of the drones, these terrorist organizations are actually bolstered. When Pakistani civilians witness the devastation of their villages and the deaths of their innocent friends and family, animosity for the U.S. only grows, as does support for those who fight against the U.S. David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency warfare expert, has warned that "Every one of these dead non-combatants represents an alienated family, a new revenge feud and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially."

Every time a bomb is dropped or a missile is fired, America takes one step back in the "human terrain" of war — what the Army describes as war's social aspect. It's clear that this war can no longer be fought just for the physical terrain, but also for the hearts and minds of the Afghan and Pakistani people.

For a stable Middle East, an allied Pakistan and a victory in the War on Terror, the CIA's drone program in Pakistan must fall into the ash heap of history. President Obama must act to ensure that everything we have accomplished — everything we fight for and everything our soldiers have died for — is not lost and forgotten.

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