When it comes to drone strikes by the US on targets inside Pakistan, the clamour of divisive debate never seems to die down. However, what is completely missing from this discussion — which seems to focus exclusively on the civilian casualties caused by drone strikes and their purported illegality — is the question of their strategic efficacy. We ought to, for a change, ask whether drone strikes work effectively in countering insurgency and in breaking, as it were, al Qaeda’s back.
The truth is that drone strikes will not work in Pakistan’s case. The use of air power is especially problematic because the enemy is not a government with visible centres of power and institutions, but in fact, a highly elusive one. Even though drones come with the assuring tagline of ‘high precision’ and ‘smart’ weapons, there is no guarantee that they will precisely target only militants. Civilian casualties, a recurrent consequence of drone strikes, are strategically problematic because they may cause the local population to feel considerable resentment towards the party that is sending the drones and will most likely increase sympathy among the locals for the militants. Israel has often deliberately used air power on Palestinian civilians to pressurise them into relinquishing support for Hamas, but this has hardly ever worked and only served to strengthen local support for Hamas. So America should ask itself whether this is something that it is willing to accept given that drone strikes inevitably lead to civilian deaths.
America has been using drones as a tool of combat in Pakistan since 2004 but the fact of the matter is that this has still not achieved its intended policy objective of destroying militancy by decapitating its leadership and annihilating its human and military resources. It’s clear that snipping off the monster’s head will not automatically spell its death. Killing high-value targets like Baitullah Mehsud or the recent death of Abu Yahya al Libbi is unlikely to extinguish the militant movement, with a successor taking their place. And even though the status of Behtullah’s successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, is unknown at the moment — since there have been several rumours of his death in drone strikes — the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan is very much alive and kicking.
The fact is that Pakistan’s northwestern region is not the only place in the country that is plagued with militancy. So to selectively target hotspots where militants and their hideouts are to be found in Fata is to erroneously consider them as a kind of a ‘non-renewable resource’, which cannot be replenished by the network of well-equipped militants, spreading from Helmand province in Afghanistan to Punjab in Pakistan. This, in fact, raises an alarming question: Will America actually start targeting other parts of Pakistan if bombing select places in Fata does not yield speedy results?
A far more effective strategy to eradicate militancy would be to try and dry up its cause. The US should break its financial backbone by targeting the opium trade in Afghanistan and disrupting the flow of private financing, which potentially implicates its own allies like Saudi Arabia. While Washington has made some progress in tackling the opium trade in Afghanistan, tracking and clamping down on the global financial network that finances the militants has remained an elusive goal.
Thus, drone strikes, at least on their own are a strategic tactic that doesn’t seem to work, contrary to what the Obama administration would have us believe. Exertion of air power has hardly ever been the sole guarantor of success in war. However, when it comes to dealing with militancy in Pakistan, which now affects the entire country, drone strikes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border can actually prove to be counterproductive. Thus, even though the US has stepped up its aerial attacks in Pakistan, it can hope to ‘win’ nothing more than worse relations with its ally and further loathing by a Pakistani population that is already against the US foreign policy.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 11th, 2012.
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