A century ago, gunboats enforced England's dominance in the far corners of the world. Kill a British colonial governor and you'd wake up one morning to see a Royal Navy gunboat steaming in over the horizon, guns blazing, as it leveled a village in retaliation. Today it is the drone -- the ubiquitous pilotless airplane bristling with video-cameras and missiles -- that increasingly projects American power and justice in distant lands. Shoot down an American helicopter and you'll soon find a drone buzzing in to settle scores.
A marvel of battlefield technology, drones have rapidly become the weapon of choice in Afghanistan. There, they are touted as a way out from the quagmire of what is now America's longest war. Why keep a hundred thousand Americans in Afghanistan when one can prevent Al-Qaeda and other terrorists from organizing their deadly plans by the use of a few drones and a handful of special-forces?
Some may think this is a tantalizing easy fix to the consequences of an ill-conceived policy, but I don't think so.
A successful conclusion to America's war in Afghanistan depends on the goodwill and cooperation of Pakistan, with which Afghanistan shares a porous border. Taliban fighters regularly cross this border to regroup and rearm before moving back across the border to fight American troops in Afghanistan. That is why most of the drone-strikes take place on the Pakistani side of the border, a country with which America is not at war. Increasingly, the cross-border attacks are launched without consulting Pakistan, and fuel the growing animosity between Pakistan and the United States.
Pakistan is not militarily strong enough to enforce a no-fly zone for American drones. But it evens the score by other means that damage America's long term interests in the region. For instance, in retaliation for the American raid on its territory to kill bin Laden, Pakistan allowed the Chinese to photograph the top-secret American helicopter that crashed during the raid and to collect samples of its stealth technology. It was an act calculated to curry favor with China, a country that is Pakistan's strategic partner, and a slap in the face of the United States, which considers China a competitor.
A stronger Chinese-Pakistani axis on its border threatens the other big regional gorilla -- India. No surprise then that the last few years have seen a marked increase in India's involvement in Afghan affairs, a direct challenge to Pakistan's regional interests.
An ill-conceived, drone-heavy strategy to end the Afghan war may well result in doing just the opposite. It may deepen America's quagmire.
The gunboat was its century's weapon of shock and awe, just as the drone is being portrayed today. The gunboat did not make a lasting difference in the fortunes of the British Empire because a foreign policy based around colonialism ultimately proved bankrupt and collapsed. That is a possibility America should keep in mind as it increasingly relies on drones to enforce its dominance in distant lands. Drone-diplomacy is no substitute for a cogent foreign policy.