As attacks on the Taliban in Pakistan increase, the number of civilian refugees fleeing the fighting has reached 1.3 million. The growing humanitarian crisis has forced parents to leave their children in their effort for survival. As hundreds of thousands of new refugees abandon their homes, often without food or blankets, civilian relief groups are rushing to erect tent cities to accommodate them. One official from the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has already expressed the concern that the efforts are “not enough” to deal with the growing tide.
Amidst the fighting, US drone attacks are of particular concern. Drone strikes meant to target terrorists and militants operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan often lead to civilian deaths, and outrage over these unmanned attacks has been growing. Reports from the ground have been increasingly difficult to obtain, as the New York Times is reporting that journalists and outsiders have been banned from many of the areas where fighting is occurring. However, two prominent former military members are speaking out about the dangers of drone strikes. In a New York Times Op-Ed entitled “Death from Above, Outrage Down Below,” David Kilcullen, the 2006-2008 counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, and Andrew McDonald Exum, a 2002-2004 Army officer who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and a current fellow at the Center for a New American Security, outline 3 reasons why the US should cease using this ultimately counterproductive tactic.
They argue, “First, the drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians.” Public outrage over accidental civilian deaths is often directed at the American military that initiated the attack rather than at the extremists for whom the bombs were originally meant. Kilcullen and Exum explain,
While violent extremists may be unpopular, for a frightened population they seem less ominous than a faceless enemy that wages war from afar and often kills more civilians than militants.
Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent — hardly “precision.” American officials vehemently dispute these figures, and it is likely that more militants and fewer civilians have been killed than is reported by the press in Pakistan. Nevertheless, every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.
The sentiment Kilcullen and Exum describe was apparent after the American airstrikes in Bala Baluk, Afghanistan earlier this month. That attack may have resulted in over 100 civilian deaths. According to the LA Times,
Echoing sentiments that would be expressed in the following days by many other villagers, [Saeed] Barakat aimed his bafflement and fury squarely at the U.S. military.
“We blame America,” he said. “With all their technology, they don’t determine who is a fighter and who is an innocent. Now my house is gone. My wife is dead. My children are burned.”
For Americans, the loss of Pakistani and Afghan life is often abstracted into numbers, becoming faceless and difficult to grasp. For those that experience its effects firsthand, it is not surprising that it generates anger and distrust. Unfortunately, Kilcullen and Exum also argue:
Second, public outrage at the strikes is hardly limited to the region in which they take place — areas of northwestern Pakistan where ethnic Pashtuns predominate. Rather, the strikes are now exciting visceral opposition across a broad spectrum of Pakistani opinion in Punjab and Sindh, the nation’s two most populous provinces. Covered extensively by the news media, drone attacks are popularly believed to have caused even more civilian casualties than is actually the case. The persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people’s deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan’s instability.
The combination of drone strikes and misinformation in Pakistan undermines the legitimacy of the Pakistani government and threatens the security of the Pakistani and the American people. In contrast, the cessation of drone strikes, improved communications between the US and the Afghan and Pakistani populations, and greater support for the civilian government of Pakistan by Pakistanis would make all parties involved safer.
Kilcullen and Exum’s final critique goes to the heart of misguided policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They continue:
Third, the use of drones displays every characteristic of a tactic — or, more accurately, a piece of technology — substituting for a strategy. These attacks are now being carried out without a concerted information campaign directed at the Pakistani public or a real effort to understand the tribal dynamics of the local population, efforts that might make such attacks more effective.
President Obama has repeatedly stated that military efforts alone will not be sufficient to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unfortunately, drone efforts seem to mask the primary problem in the region: the absence of effective instruments of civilian aid, outreach and infrastructure building. In forums held by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, an 80:20 ratio between civilian and military tools in the region was advocated, in contrast to the rough ratio of 10:90 in the House version of the supplemental last week or the approximate ratio of 5:94 which has persisted since fighting began in 2001.
Kilcullen and Exum recognize that stopping drone strikes won’t remedy the situation in Pakistan overnight, but they rightly assert that it’s a move in the right direction. They conclude,
To be sure, simply ending the drone strikes is no more a strategy than continuing them. Stabilizing Pakistan will require a focus on securing areas, principally in Punjab and Sindh, that are still under government control, while building up police and civil authorities and refocusing aid on economic development, security and governance. Suspending drone strikes won’t fix Pakistan’s problems — but continuing them makes these problems much harder to address.