Military Drone Strikes: The Debate Continues (Updated)

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UPDATE:

A weekend news analysis piece in the New York Times highlights what some may call the unintended consequences of drone killings and which others may classify in the “you can’t win for losing” or “I’ll never understand” column.

Referring to the Friday drone killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, who “was Public Enemy No. 1: a ruthless figure who devoted his career to bloodshed and mayhem, whom Pakistani pundits occasionally accused of being a pawn of Indian, or even American, intelligence,” Declan Walsh writes:

But after his death, it seems, Pakistani hearts have grown fonder.

Since missiles fired by American drones killed Mr. Mehsud in his vehicle on Friday, Pakistan’s political leaders have reacted with unusual vehemence. The interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, denounced the strike as sabotage of incipient government peace talks with the Taliban. Media commentators fulminated about American treachery. And the former cricket star Imran Khan, now a politician, renewed his threats to block NATO military supply lines through Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa — a province his Tehreek-e-Insaf party controls — with a parliamentary vote scheduled for Monday.

Walsh adds “[v]irtually nobody openly welcomed the demise of Mr. Mehsud, who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistani civilians,” and “to some American security analysts, the furious reaction was another sign of the perversity and ingratitude that they say have scarred Pakistan’s relationship with the United States.”

Walsh explains that such equivocation is “rooted in a complex mix of psychology and politics that may be central to the way Pakistanis see their arch allies, the Americans,” that it may be partly a product of Pakistan’s own failure to counter a stubborn insurgency and may stem from Pakistan’s perception that the Pakistan-U.S. relationship is “a long story of treachery, abandonment and double-crossing.”

Walsh also mentions that Aafia Siddiqui, “a Pakistani woman who is serving an 86-year jail sentence in New York for trying to kill Americans in Afghanistan, is a virtual national hero, popularly known as the ‘daughter of the nation,” and that “[o]n the other side, Malala Yousafzai, the teenage education activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year, making her an icon around the world, has been demonized in Pakistan, where she is regularly called a C.I.A. agent or a pawn of the West.”

Read more of Walsh’s interesting analysis here.

Original Post:

In an impassioned and valid comment about the loss of innocent lives as a result of military drone strikes, one of our readers pointed to an article where a “former high-ranking official from the Department of State claims that the mass loss of civilian life caused by American-launched drone strikes in Yemen are creating dozens of new militants with each attack.”

Nabeel Khoury, former deputy chief of mission in Yemen for the State Department, writes, referring to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula:

Drone strikes take out a few bad guys to be sure, but they also kill a large number of innocent civilians. Given Yemen’s tribal structure, the US generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every AQAP operative killed by drones.

The article clarifies: “[Khouri’s] ‘40-60 new enemies’ estimate was not scientifically drawn, but instead relied on his intimate knowledge of Yemeni society.”

Replying to the comment and while acknowledging the loss of innocent lives tragedy, I said:

As to the “creation” of “40” or more new militants (“terrorists”?), yes, I am a math major, but while I am sure that such tragedies create significant hate and resentment towards the United States, I honestly don’t think that anyone can put a number to it. But, as you say, “even 10 percent” is not good.

Coincidentally, in a piece yesterday, former CIA deputy director Philip Mudd writes in “The Truth—and Tragedy—of Drone Warfare” at TheDailyBeast.com:

Further, the argument that these weapons have created more terrorists than they have killed makes for more rhetoric than reality. Clearly, drone strikes result in high levels of anti-U.S. animosity. Animosity, though, does not equate to threat. The threat we face in North America today is substantially less than what we faced a decade ago, partly because of military operations that rooted out al Qaeda in Afghanistan; actions by sister security services that resulted in successes around the world; and excellent domestic intelligence work in Europe and North America. But behind the scenes, intelligence professionals across the board would agree that one key factor in the decade-plus effort to mitigate threat was simple: drones, and their capability to degrade of leadership and support networks.

Naturally, all kinds of alarms will go off and suspicion will set in when reading such a statement by a “former CIA official” — as should have also been the case when reading the counter-argument by “a former deputy chief of mission.” It probably depends on how one feels about “drone warfare” and the truth probably lies — as with most such controversies — somewhere in-between.

Nevertheless and regardless of how one feels about this issue, it may be informative to read Mudd’s take on this topic. A “take” in which Mudd admits that “[r]ecent human-rights reports have raised valid questions about the cost in civilian lives of drone warfare, with an overarching judgment that the U.S. has underestimated the civilian tragedy that results from these strikes,” but that we should also be cognizant of the “devastating impact drones have had on the al Qaeda network and the dangerous illusion that use of these ‘precision’ weapons somehow means that innocents will be spared in future conflicts.”

After pointing out — rightly or wrongly — that “[r]egardless of the shape of our debates about the use of drones, we should not lose sight of the fact that these weapons have saved more civilian lives than we will ever know in the face of an adversary that purposefully targets innocents,” that “regardless of the precision of ground weapons and air strikes by manned aircraft, these weapons have resulted in tragic loss of life in Iraq and Afghanistan” and that “If we decide to use force, we should accept the consequences,” Mudd concludes by suggesting an area where those who oppose the use of drones and those who support their deployment may agree on:

We should stop calling them precision weapons, and stop suggesting that 21st century warfare will somehow prove more civilized than the wars of the past. War is tragic. And our decisions to deploy force, regardless of how precise 21st-century weapons systems become, should not grow any more casual because of some judgment that drones are a clean solution. They are a devastatingly effective tactical solution. But, like the weapons systems that arm ships, planes, and ground forces, they kill.

I emphasize “may” because I know that — as in many similar critical issues — Americans will continue to “healthily” disagree.

Read more here.

Image: www.shutterstock.com

  

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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