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Trust the Drones, Not Pakistan

Pakistan is stepping up its criticism of the expansion of U.S. drone operations within its borders, calling the campaign to root out militant groups in the country’s tribal areas “out of control.” It is however, the Pakistani military’s own ineptitude and sheer unwillingness to combat extremism within the country’s borders that makes the drone offensive a vital part of U.S. strategy in the region.

That Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as myriad other militant groups, operate with near impunity in Pakistan’s tribal areas is an acknowledged, albeit frustrating reality to U.S. military and intelligence officials. Perhaps more infuriating is the Pakistani military’s demonstrated inability to defeat the host of militant groups (some of which have ties to Pakistan’s I.S.I.) or even curtail their operations along the Afghan border.

Whereas the Pakistani military’s few forays into the tribal areas have failed, the expanded U.S. drone program has significantly reduced the number of militants operating in the region, thereby limiting their ability to plan attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.

Last year saw a sharp increase in the number of drone strikes, up from 9 total strikes between 2004-2007, to 118 strikes in 2010. Last year, of the estimated 993 deaths resulting from drone operations, 939 were militants. As of March 2011, 141 people have been killed, of which 115 were militants. The majority of the strikes are concentrated in North Waziristan, the hub of extremism in Pakistan.

Moreover, drones have put direct “pressure on Al-Qaeda,” says Bruce Riedel, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Speaking recently at the launch of his new book, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of Global Jihad in Washington, Riedel offered a compelling example of drone effectiveness. Before the Obama administration expanded the use of drones, Al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri “used to put out a new audio message every other week. […] Last year [2010], due to the drones, he put out four messages, two of them were less than 15 seconds in length. His ops tempo has been disrupted.”

While some resulting civilian deaths are regrettable and further complicate the tempestuous U.S.-Pakistan relationship, the number of civilians killed has been comparatively few to the number of militant deaths. Even the Pakistani military has stated publicly that U.S. drones target and kill militants, not civilians. There is of course the danger of becoming “drone-addicted,” as Riedel says. Drones are “an awesome technological instrument, but they’re not the solution.”

But for now, drones are the best solution. There is not enough trust between the C.I.A. and the I.S.I to turn full drone control over to Pakistani leadership. A broader U.S. military presence, beyond the problematic number of American security personnel already operating in Pakistan, is out of the question. Full-fledged air strikes would likely result in far greater civilian deaths, not to mention further endanger American servicemen.

So what is to be done? Until Pakistan demonstrates an increased willingness to combat extremism within its own borders, let the drones get back to work.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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