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Obama's Drone Surge in Pakistan Doing More Damage Than Good

The facts unequivocally illustrate that the drone program is steering the U.S. away from achieving its national security objectives in the region.
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President Barack Obama's recent announcement to drawdown troops in Afghanistan struck an aporetic chord in Pakistan due to fears the U.S. will offset this deescalation by intensifying its covert war across the border -- a strategy which features a CIA drone program designed to execute high-value extremist targets sanctuaried in Pakistan's borderlands. However, because the policy was derived from stale paradigms that lack adequate contextual inputs, it has yielded the unintended consequence of breeding more insurgents than it has eliminated.

The timing of the strategic shift seems right given the U.S.-Pakistani relationship's all-time ebb triggered by the SEAL raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden in a safe house outside Pakistan's capital. Pakistani recalcitrance at launching military excursions against insurgents ensconced within the northwest tribal belt and its recent dismissal of CIA personnel from Pakistani soil has prompted the U.S. to send worrisome overtures to Islamabad.

Word has surfaced the administration plans on withholding from Pakistan some $800 million in military aid, news which comes on the heels of U.S. military chief Adm. Mike Mullen accusing the Pakistani government of being complicit in the death of a prominent journalist.

A sure sign shadowy assets will play a larger role in Pakistan is General David Petraeus's move to Langley as CIA director. After taking command in Afghanistan Petraeus doubled the number of airstrikes and dramatically increased night raids, leaving Pakistan to wonder the degree to which the drone program will burgeon during King David's reign as intelligence chief.

The inclination towards covert drone strikes is not a new trend. Since 9/11 the U.S. drone fleet has grown from a few dozen to 7,000 and the air force now trains more drone "pilots" than those that actually fly jets and bombers.

What is shocking is that the bulk of the drone explosion has occurred under Obama -- the very president who cast himself as the antithesis of George W. Bush who promised he would never condone un-American Bush era policies such as the unlawful detainment and waterboarding of enemy combatants.

But in just two years Obama authorized nearly four times as many drone strikes as Bush did during his entire two terms in office. This, despite the fact the former constitutional law professor is likely cognizant the drone attacks violate international law.

And what could be more morally reprehensible, not to mention cowardly, than death-from-the-sky extrajudicial target killings of suspected militants by remote unmanned aerial vehicles? Drones play cop, judge, jury and executioner in one fell swoop at the click of a button by an operator sitting in a safe undisclosed location in front of a Nintendo-like monitor screen.

According to a an Oxford Research Group report the U.S. has flouted international law by failing to identify drone casualties, violating universal human rights including freedom from being arbitrarily deprived of one's life and not providing compensation for possible wrongful deaths. But American officials believe investigating casualties defeats the whole purpose of a groundless military campaign -- a mindset that will defeat the purpose of the entire mission because innocent deaths galvanize the Islamist cause and spawn extremist converts.

According to Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann in Foreign Affairs, about 15 to 20 percent of those killed by drones are non-combatants. But Islamabad and Washington are at odds on casualty figures with Pakistani officials estimating 700 civilians were killed by drone strikes in 2009 alone while the U.S. has claimed responsibility for fewer than 30 civilian deaths between May 2008 and May 2010.

Bergen and Tiedemann also underline the program's inefficacy at eliminating key insurgent leaders, reporting that less than two percent of those killed by drones in Pakistan are high-value targets. The data also clearly indicates the program, contrary to acting as a terrorist deterrent, has actually fueled the insurgency. Although drone strikes have eradicated more than 1,000 militants, levels of violence in Pakistan have spiked since the program's inception from 150 terrorist incidents in 2004 to a peak of 1,916 in 2009.

The root cause of this uptick is the widespread contempt of the drone program found amongst the Pakistani population. According to a 2009 Gallup poll only 9 percent of Pakistanis supported the strikes, which correlates to the fact two-thirds of those residing in the tribal areas believe suicide attacks against U.S. targets are justifiable.

Drone strikes have also been unable to deter Western terrorist aspirants from making the pilgrimage to militant boot camps in Pakistan to train for global jihad, evidenced by the over 150 American and European recruits discovered in the tribal areas in 2009, just as the drone program was being accelerated.

In fact, drone strikes fly in the face of the entire U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine espoused by the likes of Petraeus which is premised on the philosophy that guerilla wars can only be won by winning the "hearts and minds" of the local populace.

Even former Petraeus adviser Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, a renowned counterinsurgency theorist, has called for a moratorium on strikes, asserting that while violent extremists may be unpopular, for a frightened population under siege they seem less ominous than a faceless enemy that wages war from afar and kills more civilians than militants.

Kilcullen believes drone strikes are counterproductive because countless man-hours of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance are put into eliminating a few purported high-value insurgents, an obsessive short-sighted focus that comes at the expense of protecting the population. He believes building local partnerships, learning about tribal dynamics and empowering indigenous forces are more effective methods for defeating an insurgency.

The American foreign policy establishment needs an infusion of fresh thinking and must abandon building strategies upon broken single-variable models to address problems with ever-changing interrelationships; otherwise the U.S. will fail to grasp complexities such as how certain anti-terror tactics can end up manufacturing terrorists.

The facts unequivocally illustrate that the drone program is steering the U.S. away from achieving its national security objectives in the region. Yet the administration's reaction to this reality is equivalent to a person driving down the road in the wrong direction who, instead of making any effort at course correction, decides to simply step on the gas.

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