June 01, 2009

Drone Strikes: The Pushback

A clutch of anonymous intelligence and military officials -- no doubt stung by the degree to which the efficacy of drone attacks in Pakistan has been questioned of late -- have hit back in defense of the strikes in an article written by the reliable Karen DeYoung in today's Washington Post.

Judging by reports from the region through late April, the Obama administration authorized about four or five Predator attacks a month, maintaining a pace set by the Bush administration in August. The CIA, which does not publicly acknowledge the attacks, operates the aircraft, chooses the targets -- ideally with the cooperation of Pakistani intelligence on the ground -- and has White House authority to fire the missiles without prior consultation outside the intelligence agency. A senior Pakistani official said the rate has not diminished in recent weeks, although "you don't hear so much about it" because the strike areas have been more isolated.

"There are better targets and better intelligence on the ground," the Pakistani official said. "It's less of a crapshoot."

A second U.S. military official agreed, saying, "We're not getting civilians, and not getting outrage beyond the usual stuff."

The article did not question the claims made by the officials or offer counter-claims. It did, however, leak this classified memorandum written by General Petraeus just four days ago:

"Anti-U.S. sentiment has already been increasing in Pakistan . . . especially in regard to cross-border and reported drone strikes, which Pakistanis perceive to cause unacceptable civilian casualties," Petraeus wrote. Nearly two-thirds of Pakistanis oppose counterterrorism cooperation with the United States, he said, and "35 percent say they do not support U.S. strikes into Pakistan, even if they are coordinated with the GOP [government of Pakistan] and the Pakistan Military ahead of time."

First off, it is my understanding that there is a growing divide in the special operations community about these strikes. No surprise, the direct-action side of the house is in favor of them, while the indirect-action guys are more skeptical.

Second, I should point out that -- appearances to the contrary -- I am not a hardliner about these strikes. If someone can demonstrate to me that these strikes are not a tactic substituting for a strategy and that they indeed fit into a coherent strategy, I will be a lot less skeptical about them. And if these strikes were accompanied by both effective strategic communications and properly resourced information operations, I would be even less skeptical. Oh, and if you throw in a proper incentive structure for the tribes living in the FATA and NWFP, I would be more or less happy.

But here's what's not going to sway my opinion: pointing out these drone strikes are killing more bad guys and less civilians than is reported in the Pakistani media. I know they are. But I am more concerned about these strikes are perceived than their actual BDA. And if they continue to contribute to the dynamic described by General Petraeus in his memorandum, then I remain an opponent of these strikes until the conditions in the above paragraph are met.