Monday, November 4, 2013

When A Drone Strike Backfires

This past Friday, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban was killed in North Waziristan, on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The United States’ drone program has been under sharp debate for months – proponents see it as a way to wage more specific warfare against American threats with limited civilian casualties and no American troops on the ground, while opponents see it as a power that could be easily abused, and do not agree that civilian casualties are necessarily limited. While the debate rages on, however, the program has not abated, and Friday’s killing was considered a great success. Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader killed, had a $5 million bounty over his head, and was widely thought to be one of the most important figures in the hierarchy of the Taliban.

This strike was not necessarily a success, however. Mehsud, who was not exactly a revered figure in Pakistan and certainly not one in neighboring Afghanistan, is now being mourned by the very people who despised him while alive. That the U.S. killed him does nothing but exacerbate our ongoing issues with civilians in the Middle East, who typically view our drone program as too large in scope and unbiased in attacks. In killing a monster, we created a martyr.

Mehsud speaking to supporters

But civilians discontent with the U.S. may not even be the biggest setback from this strike. Pakistan announced yesterday that they will be “reviewing” their relationship with the U.S., with some politicians going as far as to say Pakistan should block U.S. supply routes to Afghanistan in retaliation. This is not something new, and the U.S. hopefully prepared for this fallout. Pakistan-U.S. relations have been strained for years because of drone strikes liberally executed in Pakistani territory, many of which the Pakistani government has no knowledge of until after the fact. This has sowed seeds of mistrust, and the animosity directed at the U.S. will surely grow with this latest strike.

Mehsud’s death highlights the glaring paradox that the U.S. drone program has struggled with since its inception: a successful attack on dangerous insurgents on one hand means those insurgents are no longer a threat to U.S. interest. But on the other hand, how many family, friends, or even bystanders affected by a successful attack will have their minds changed radically enough that they themselves become threats to U.S. interest? It is impossible to quantify this, but it certainly exists. Personally, I support the drone program in a limited scope, and agree that the civilian casualties are almost guaranteed to be less than that of conventional warfare, and that drone strikes limit the number of Americans we need to put in the line of fire. But I do not subscribe to the belief that the drone program works flawlessly. Terrorism will continue to flourish if groups such as the Taliban can continue to portray their fallen leaders as martyrs and encourage civilians to take up the fight on their behalf. To ignore this would be a fatal mistake – the U.S. needs to focus its efforts on combating propaganda in the future just as much as they focus on eliminating these high-profile targets.

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