Several Taliban training camps in the Pakistan hinterland were hit last week by missiles fired from American unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, reportedly killing some 20 terrorists. Remarkably, some people think these strikes are a bad idea.
To get a sense of what U.S. drone strikes have accomplished in the past two years, recall the political furor that followed a July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which found that al Qaeda had "protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland [i.e., U.S.] attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership. . . . As a result, we judge that the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment." The media declared we were losing the war.
Less than a year later, then-CIA director Michael Hayden offered a far more upbeat assessment to the Washington Post.
Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamat-i-Islami rally in Lahore on July 3rd against reported U. S. drone strikes in Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghanistan border.
What changed? At least part of the answer is that the U.S. went from carrying out only a handful of drone attacks in 2007 to more than 30 in 2008. According to U.S. intelligence, among the "high-value targets" killed in these new strikes were al Qaeda spokesman Abu Layth al-Libi, weapons expert Abu Sulayman al Jazairi, chemical and biological expert Abu Khabab al-Masri, commander and logistician Abu Wafa al-Saudi, al Qaeda "Emir" Abu al-Hasan al Rimi, and, in November, Rashid Rauf. Rauf, who had escaped from a Pakistan jail the previous year, was a coordinator of the summer 2007 plot to blow up passenger planes over the Atlantic.
Is the world better off with these people dead? We think so. Then again, Lord Bingham, until recently Britain's senior law lord, has recently said UAV strikes may be "beyond the pale" and potentially on a par with cluster bombs and landmines. Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen says "the Predator [drone] strikes have an entirely negative effect on Pakistani stability." He adds, "We should be cutting strikes back pretty substantially."
In both cases, the argument against drones rests on the belief that the attacks cause wide-scale casualties among noncombatants, thereby embittering local populations and losing hearts and minds. If you glean your information from wire reports -- which depend on stringers who are rarely eyewitnesses -- the argument seems almost plausible.
Yet anyone familiar with Predator technology knows how misleading those reports can be. Unlike fighter jets or cruise missiles, Predators can loiter over their targets for more than 20 hours, take photos in which men, women and children can be clearly distinguished (burqas can be visible from 20,000 feet) and deliver laser-guided munitions with low explosive yields. This minimizes the risks of the "collateral damage" that often comes from 500-pound bombs. Far from being "beyond the pale," drones have made war-fighting more humane.
A U.S. intelligence summary we've seen corrects the record of various media reports claiming high casualties from the Predator strikes. For example, on April 1 the BBC reported that "a missile fired by a suspected U.S. drone has killed at least 10 people in Pakistan." But the intelligence report says that half that number were killed, among them Abdullah Hamas al-Filistini, a top al Qaeda trainer, and that no women and children were present.
In each of the strikes in 2009 that are described by the intelligence summary, the report says no women or children were killed. Moreover, we know of planned drone attacks that were aborted when Predator cameras spied their presence. And an April 19 strike on a compound in South Waziristan did destroy a truck loaded with what the report estimates were more explosives than the truck that took out Islamabad's Marriott Hotel last September. That Islamabad attack killed 54 people and injured more than 260 others, mostly Pakistan civilians but also Americans.
Critics of the drone strikes ought to ask whether, based on this information, the April 19 strike was worth the bad publicity. We'd say yes. We'd also say that the Obama Administration -- which, to its credit, has stepped up the use of Predators -- should make public the kind of information we've seen. We understand there will always be issues concerning sources and methods. But critics of the drone attacks, especially Pakistani critics, have become increasingly vocal in their opposition. They deserve to know about the terrorist calamities they've been spared thanks to these unmanned flights over their territory.
We're delighted to see that Pakistan's military is finally taking the fight to the Taliban and al Qaeda after ill-conceived truces that were a source of the country's recent instability. When Pakistan's government can exercise sovereignty over all its territory, there will be no need for Predator strikes. In the meantime, unmanned bombs away.