For months, Pakistani leaders have complained, loudly, about American drone strikes on their territory. Now, an influential adviser to American policymakers is raising his voice against the unmanned attacks, too.
"If we want to strengthen our friends and weaken our enemies in Pakistan, bombing Pakistani villages with unmanned drones is totally counterproductive," Dr. David Kilcullen tells Danger Room. Kilcullen, a former Australian colonel, is considered one of the leading thinkers on counterinsurgency, providing advice to both U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus and former Secretary of State Condolleeza Rice.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have struck targets in Pakistan at least 40 times in the last year. The most recent attack came just days after President Obama was sworn in. Twenty-two people were reportedly killed in the strike.
U.S. officials say the drones have taken out dozens of militants who were undermining American efforts in the region. Perhaps so, Kilcullen acknowledges. But using drones to attack those militants "increase the number and radicalism of Pakistanis who support extremism, and thus undermine the key strategic program of building a willing and capable partner in Pakistan," he writes in Monday's Small Wars Journal blog. Kilcullen gave much the same message, in testimony last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Kilcullen doesn't think all UAV attacks are bad. "While ever al Qa’ida remains active and can threaten the international community from bases within Pakistan, the need to strike terrorist targets on Pakistani territory will remain. But our policy should be to treat this as an absolute, and rarely invoked, last resort," he notes.
All strikes should be carried out in consultation with Islamabad, in "an area outside of effective Pakistani sovereignty," and a time when "the target is positively identified and clearly distinguishable from surrounding populations, reducing the risk of collateral damage to a level acceptable to elected political leaders."
That last bit may be the toughest part. Before U.S. Air Force drones hit targets in Afghanistan as part of pre-planned operations, lawyers and intelligence officers in the Combined Air and Space Operations Center match it with cell-phone intercepts, informants' tips, and "pattern of life" analyses on the intended targets. Other airmen estimate the likelihood of civilian casualties, with "Raindrop," a classified simulation tool that models local traffic patterns, structural compositions, and bomb blast patterns. It's a process so rigorous that even Human Rights Watch says that the chances of civilian casualties are near nil, when it's followed. (The problems -- and the slaying of innocents -- come during last-minute, so-called "troops-in-contact" scenarios.)
But the UAV attacks in Pakistan are spearheaded by the CIA, not the Air Force. It's unclear whether the spy agency takes the same precautions, when it unleashes the killer drones.
UPDATE: Kilcullen wants to be clear. "Sometimes we might have to [attack with drones] -- but only where larger interests (say, stopping another 9/11) are directly affected," he tells Danger Room. "We need to be extremely careful about undermining the longer-term objective -- a stable Pakistan, where elected politicians control their own national-security establishment, and extremism is diminishing -- for the sake of collecting scalps."