The (Not So Secret) Drone War in Pakistan

Catherine Hatten participated in an internship with the German Marshall Fund, of the United States through the Washington Academic Internship Program, at OSU. Here is her research on drone warfare in Pakistan.

"The Pakistani population is expanding and will soon be the fifth most populous country in the world and the second most populous country in the Islamic world. Not only does it have a large population, Pakistan also has the "fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world" which is on track to be the "third largest nuclear weapons state" (O'Hanlon). The strategic value of Pakistan means that the United States can ill afford to make Pakistan an enemy, but "the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has not been worse since 9/11" (O’Hanlon). This is largely because of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Pakistani government has never publicly given the United States permission to carry out drone strikes within Pakistan. Despite this, there existed an "average frequency of a drone strike every three days in 2010" (Flannes, 126). It is accepted by most that the Pakistani government, military, and elites who rule the country do not completely disagree with drone attacks, because "It is accepted by most that the Pakistani government, military, and elites who rule the country do not completely disagree with drone attacks, because at the end of the day [the use of] drones are in their interest" (George).

The drone program is perhaps "the world’s worst kept secret, so much so that it is not even a secret" (Blank). The knowledge of the drone strikes is widespread, and the clandestine nature of the program makes it difficult to collect data on how many drone strikes have been carried out, much less the number of civilian casualties that have occurred and the data easier to distort. The global public even lacks information on what defines a civilian to the CIA, which prevents them from knowing if the wife of a terrorist is a civilian, or if someone who financed, willingly or unwillingly, a terrorist organization is considered a terrorist (Holewinski). Obama spoke about the bombings in an effort to "make sure that people understand that drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties" (DeYoung), but without knowing what defines the terms "huge number" and "civilian," this statement means little. There is also a good chance that President Obama "has no idea about the number of civilian casualties" (Holewinski). There is a very large spectrum of estimates of how many civilian casualties occurred, with the governments of the U.S. and Pakistan on either end. The Pakistani government said publicly that "700 civilians were killed by the drone strikes [in 2010] but on the other end of the spectrum a U.S. government official asserted last December that [it was] 'just over 20' civilians and 'more than 400' fighters" (Bergen).

Non-governmental sources have made concerted efforts to accurately determine where drone strikes have occurred and the number of civilian casualties. As there is a lack of verified information from either government, it is these journalists and human rights organizations that must be relied on. The variance within these sources, however, makes the number and locations speculative and thus, possible for skeptics to dismiss. Further complicating the collection of information on the number of casualties is militant activity. Realizing that the drone strikes made them look weak, the Taliban “would cordon off the area” of strikes “and remove the bodies of the dead making it difficult to verify who and how many people had been killed” (Shah).

Without better relations with the Pakistani people and government, it is difficult to know with certainty, how many civilians have been killed. The U.S. government does not trust Pakistan enough to count civilian deaths without exaggerating the number, nor do they have the desire to put ground troops in to investigate these deaths. Without improving this relationship, the United States cannot openly acknowledge the drone program that is occurring in Pakistan, or, therefore, to get an official admission of casualties.

Despite the Pakistani government's public posturing against the drone strikes in the present, they privately agree with them, which should ease the transition to a more transparent policy by the U.S. According to a diplomatic cable in 2008, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Chief of Army Staff, "asked the U.S. military for 'continuous predator coverage of the conflict area' in South Waziristan," and another cable in 2009 said that he knew "'full well that the strikes have been precise (creating few civilian casualties) and targeted primarily at foreign fighters' in Waziristan" (Shah). This admission of the importance of the bombing is proof that the government and military approve of the drones, though one must take this firm declaration of faith with some skepticism as it is through the American perspective. Their public denial of this fact and the exaggeration by the media only serve to exacerbate the rampant anti-Americanism that is felt in most of Pakistan.

Success in Pakistan is dependent on efforts to stem the main reasons that people turn to terrorism and a new tactic for this, combined with greater transparency, could lower the costs of transparency. One reason that people turn to terrorism is because of discontent and feelings of helplessness caused by unemployment (George). Ideas to encourage job growth include granting Pakistan extremely low tariffs on textiles, which have the advantage of spurring job growth without the negative accusations of propaganda associated with aid (Markey). This action, however, cannot be achieved currently through the politics, and it must wait for the beginning of the next administration, whether President Obama returns or a republican candidate assumes office. In this case it can only be achieved if the new Secretary of State were to consider it a priority and be willing to leverage political capitol against it (Markey). Aid also should be used to help with basic infrastructure, especially "schools… [and] hospitals" if destroyed through drone bombing as Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Britain claimed many had (Moyes). Aid should not be cut completely as it is an integral part of working to improve lives.

The cost of not being more transparent is a great one, and harms American democracy more than anything else. On the national level any tool that a democracy uses should be publicly debated. Without this debate an important safeguard to democracy is removed. The government need not give all information about drones, but the admission that the program is happening and what the basic parameters of an activity killing hundreds of people are should be open and debated. "As long as only a relatively small group of people has access to information on drones, they have too much power" (Markey). There is no chance to argue or disagree if one group has exclusive information, as they can argue that the information they hold outweighs all other arguments.

Drones are too useful of a tool to eliminate dangerous terrorists for their usage to be stopped completely, but a partnership with Pakistan needs to be built as well, which would reduce the likelihood of the Pakistani government ending the drone program after transparency. It is also important to remember that drones are just one tool in the toolbox to fight terrorism, albeit one that costs no American lives. Building local partnerships is a difficult step to take when the Pakistanis have such a negative view of the United States and to a lesser extent vice versa. The proper step to take would be to attempt to decrease the number of civilian casualties. By revamping the policy on drone warfare, to make only the most important targets acceptable, and only in cases where there will be minimum civilian casualties, will be beneficial to the United States. Combine this with an open policy and concerted effort to share information on the attacks, find out the true number of civilian casualties, and legitimize the program within the world community and, finally, put forth an effort to invest in long term engagement and development in Pakistan in an effort to improve political stability and political progress. Pakistan's fragmented, weak, civilian government will not make this challenge any easier. More open tactics are necessary with more respect for innocent life for American goals to be achieved, and to create sustainable progress for the Pakistani people for self-support. Proving an interest in helping the Pakistani people better their lives helps strengthen American values throughout the world; without these efforts these same values are devalued and lose meaning. This is not an easy goal to achieve, as it requires the United States to work to understand another culture and create solutions based on that culture’s needs.