The Necessity of Drone Strikes

In an article published today in the New York Times, Scott Shane reports that the US is escalating its Predator airstrike program in Pakistan which targets Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.  Mr. Shane discusses some of the strategic and ethical dilemmas surrounding the program, including the risk of civilian casualties. 

Some analysts support the campaign because it has been successful in killing Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, while others argue that the airstrikes are counterproductive because they inflame Pakistani opposition to the attacks and help radical Islamic groups recruit new members; human rights activists oppose the program for moral reasons rather than strategic ones.

Obviously, civilian casualties resulting from drone strikes are tragic and should be minimized as much as possible.  But from a strategic standpoint, the Predator program is essential for US counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts because it is the only way that American forces can reach Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan who are plotting terrorist attacks and directing the insurgency in Afghanistan.  Ending the campaign at this time would defeat the ultimate purpose of the war effort in Afghanistan, which is to keep Al Qaeda leaders bottled up in the tribal areas of Pakistan where they can be more easily targeted than they would be if they had a safe haven in Afghanistan.  It would also be politically untenable for the administration to stop the airstrikes and signal that the US has essentially stopped trying to kill Osama Bin Laden and other militants who planned the 9/11 attacks and are plotting more mass casualty attacks against Americans.

Thus far, the US has focused its Predator operations on militants in North and South Waziristan, but senior Taliban leaders are primarily based in Baluchistan.  In an op-ed piece published today in the New York Times, Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan and a civilian adviser to American military commanders there, argues that the US must target Taliban leaders in Baluchistan in order to succeed in Afghanistan.  He says this can be done in two ways: conduct police-type raids in cooperation with Pakistani security forces and capture the militants; or kill them with drone strikes. 

American officals are reportedly talking with Pakistani officials about expanding the Predator campaign into Baluchistan.  Pakistani leaders express opposition to the drone attacks publicly but privately support the program, according to many accounts.


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