21 March 2009
The Downside of Letting Robots Do the Bombing
By Mark Mazzetti
New York Times
WASHINGTON — In the mountains of northwest Pakistan, the psychological impact of America’s drone strikes can be measured by this: Some locals have given up drinking Lipton tea, out of a growing conviction that the Central Intelligence Agency is using the tea bags as homing beacons for its pilotless planes.
But in Pakistan’s cities there is a different impact: a sense that the gizmos, created to instill fear in America’s enemies, only reveal the fears of Americans to take casualties themselves. There, a song of protest taunts the world’s most powerful country for sending robots to do a man’s job:
America’s heartless terrorism
Even as the C.I.A. crosses names off its list of Al Qaeda leaders with each successful strike in Pakistan, Washington is struggling to understand the long-term implications of a push-button conflict. One question is whether the robot wars are only a holding action in a far more complex political and ideological war, against an enemy whose resilience America still doesn’t fully understand.
President Obama and his advisers acknowledge that it will take years, and billions of dollars, before Afghanistan’s own army and police can secure that country’s hinterlands from the now-resurgent militants of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, the militants are likely to remain part of the fabric of Pashtun culture in the tribal lands on both sides of the mountainous border, where the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan have proved unable to exert control.
Given this complexity, the drone strikes are a seductive tool. They have delivered body blows to Al Qaeda’s leadership in the tribal areas of northern Pakistan without risking a single American soldier on the ground. And last week, Mr. Obama was reported to be considering widening their use to include killing Taliban leaders who direct insurgents in Afghanistan from other sanctuaries, near Quetta, in southwestern Pakistan.
Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, recently called the spy agency’s campaign in Pakistan the “most effective weapon” available to the Obama administration to take on militants there — a finely tuned bit of praise, given the Pakistani government’s past denunciations of forays by American ground troops onto Pakistani soil.
The drone campaign is, at the same time, the antithesis of the grinding, patient and high-risk counterinsurgency doctrine currently in vogue at the Pentagon. Following the pattern of Iraq, that doctrine’s proponents want to persuade at least some tribal groups to work with the Americans, as well as with the Afghan and Pakistani governments, rather than the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
But in Pakistan, some C.I.A. veterans of the tribal battles worry that instead of separating the citizenry from the militants the drone strikes may be uniting them. These experts say they fear that killing militants from the sky won’t undermine, and may promote, the psychology of anti-American militancy that is metastasizing in the country.
“Unless we come up with a coherent Pakistan policy, then nothing works,” said Milton Bearden, who as C.I.A. station chief in Islamabad once led the agency’s campaign to arm Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet Union. (It was Mr. Bearden who learned, from an executive at Lipton’s parent company, Unilever, that Lipton tea wasn’t selling well in some parts of Pakistan, and why.)
Over the last six months, C.I.A. operatives wielding joysticks have launched more than three dozen strikes by Predator and more heavily-armed Reaper drones. Missiles fired from them have hit militants gathering in mountain redoubts, and they have hit truck convoys ferrying ammunition across the border into Afghanistan.
Some agency veterans draw comparisons to the Israeli policy of “targeted killings” of Hamas leaders — killings that claimed scores of the group’s top operatives in the Palestinian territories, but didn’t keep new recruits from attacking Israel.
Intelligence officials in Washington and Islamabad said it was nearly impossible to measure the impact of the strikes on the so-called “war of ideas.” Even when precise, the drone strikes often kill women and children in militant compounds. When that happens, local Pashtun customs of “badal” obligate their survivors to seek revenge.
And then there is the matter of bravery. For his new book about the rise of robot warfare, “Wired for War,” P. W. Singer interviewed insurgents in the Muslim world who said that America’s reliance on drone weapons is a sign that the United States is afraid to sacrifice troops in combat.
This ought to be a particular concern now, Mr. Singer said, as the United States struggles to build alliances in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There, he said, trust is built by displays of personal bravery.
“If courage is the coin of the realm, then courage is what proves to the local Pashtun tribes that you are their allies,” he said. He cited the protest song, which he came across while researching his book.
The United States learned hard lessons in Iraq about the limits of technology. The march to Baghdad made good on the Bush administration’s promises of a swift victory over Iraq’s army. But after the Iraqi troop columns melted into the landscape, the war turned nasty, brutish and long.
Now, there seems to be no chance that President Obama will order an invasion of western Pakistan, and some experts see the drone strikes as only the best of many bad options.
Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corporation and author of a forthcoming book about Afghanistan, “In the Graveyard of Empires,” acknowledges a possibility that expanded missile strikes, aimed at Taliban leaders across the border in western Pakistan, could affect the fight in Afghanistan. They may demoralize Taliban foot soldiers there and weaken them in the eyes of fence-sitting Afghans who are waiting to see which side will win. If those Afghans come to think the Taliban can no longer return to Kabul, the foot soldiers might even be driven to the negotiating table, he said.
But Pakistan is different, Mr. Jones said. In the northwest, where Al Qaeda’s leaders are now based, he sees little hope that the drones alone can address the core problem, which he says is a militancy already strong among local residents. So continued strikes there, he said, may mean only more trouble and instability for Pakistan.
“You don’t clear territory, you don’t hold territory, and you don’t undermine Al Qaeda’s support base with Predator strikes alone,” he said.
Members of Mr. Obama’s team, like their predecessors in the Bush administration, say they know this. It’s just that everyone is struggling to come up with a better plan for Pakistan’s tribal lands.
Dennis C. Blair, the director of national
intelligence, summed it up in recent testimony to the
Senate, with more than a hint of frustration in his voice:
“No one I’ve talked to has come up with a grand strategy
for that area.”