The Best Defense

Drones: Here to stay

By Adam Ahmad

Best Defense department of dronery

The debate concerning the use of armed Predator drones to neutralize al Qaeda and a cauldron of other militant groups in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has accelerated in recent months. Supporters of the drone program cite its ability to rapidly trounce terrorist operatives with little difficulty, while those in the opposition highlight the controversial nodes of the program such as its legality and the public animosity it breeds from civilian casualties. 

But a constant focus on the positives and negatives of the drone program in Pakistan does little to address the real issues surrounding its use. The more compelling issue is: what's the alternative? Yes, the drone program has sapped much of al Qaeda's energy in the tribal areas, but it has also sparked torrents of anti-Americanism. Is there any other way for the U.S. and Pakistan to dismantle terrorist organizations without provoking wider violence for Pakistan?

One approach is for Pakistani military forces to suit up and prepare for another invasion of the tribal areas. But past incursions have ended dreadfully. During Operation Zalzala in South Waziristan in 2008, homes were razed, villages were leveled and thousands of FATA residents were displaced. The operation was so devastating that it created new grievances for FATA's local population and led Baitullah Meshud's al Qaeda inspired Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) to double-down in violence and suicide bombings, wreaking havoc across the Pakistani landscape.

This is not to say that the Pakistani military should shy away from conducting operations in Pakistan proper to claw back militant gains. The military offensive in 2009 to vanquish Mullah Fazlula's Taliban faction-responsible for the assassination attempt on Malala Yousafzai-from the Swat Valley was much needed. But the Pakistani military should steer clear of orchestrating incursions into the tribal areas where the writ of Islamabad runs thin in order to avoid wider devastation.

A more hazardous alternative to drones is to have U.S. forces conduct cross-border raids into FATA. With the U.S. drawing down in Afghanistan, this option is not on the table in Washington and for good reason. If the Pakistani public is outraged at remote controlled bombers hovering over their country, hostility towards the U.S. would certainly hit a fever pitch at western boots on the ground. A U.S. military presence in FATA would also serve a propaganda bonanza for violent extremist groups. Indeed, there remains little appetite in Washington to turn that into a reality. Pakistan's leadership will also never give the green light for such a move.

In another approach, Pakistani authorities could also turn to forging political settlements with militant groups in hopes that they cease their assistance in planning and executing terror attacks with foreign and homegrown terrorist organizations. But if history is any lesson, peace deals with extremist groups have a very short lifespan. The 24-year-old Waziri militant leader Nek Mohammed back in June 2004 failed to up hold his end of the Shakai Peace Agreement with Islamabad, jolting the Pakistani military into South Waziristan again to clear out Pakistani and foreign militant groups from the area.

What's more, recent utterances from TTP vanguard Hakimullah Meshud suggests that the group is not interested at all in signing peace deals with the government. Meshud even sacked one of his deputies -- Maulvi Faqir Muhammad -- for entertaining the idea.

Pakistan has historically negotiated these peace deals when the Pakistani government was in a relatively weak position, forcing the state to make significant concessions to the militants. The deals failed to serve their purpose and only strengthened the resolve of the extremists.

None of these alternatives can wipe out terror groups in Pakistan without causing wider destruction in the tribal areas or in Pakistan proper. Drones not only allow for the swift incineration of terrorist operatives, but they also make it more difficult for terror groups to meet and plan attacks. The program may have its faults, but it has also kept Pakistan safer by neutralizing the groups that seek nothing more than to break the government in Islamabad and harm activists for speaking out for a woman's right to education. For better or for worse, blemishes and all, drones are here to stay.

Adam Ahmad is a researcher at the Center for a New American Security and a reporting assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His work focuses on South Asia and U.S. covert action.

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