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February 21, 2011

How's That Strategic Partnership With Pakistan Working Out?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Greg Miller in the Washington Post has a really interesting article about the success, or lack thereof, of the US drone war in Pakistan:

CIA drone attacks in Pakistan killed at least 581 militants last year, according to independent estimates. The number of those militants noteworthy enough to appear on a U.S. list of most-wanted terrorists: two.

Despite a major escalation in the number of unmanned Predator strikes being carried out under the Obama administration, data from government and independent sources indicate that the number of high-ranking militants being killed as a result has either slipped or barely increased.

According to New America Foundation, 94% of those killed in drone attacks, which cost more than $1 million each, are low-level militants. This makes the US war on terrorism the most expensive game of whack-a-mole ever invented.

But this sort of report begs a question; if the drone war is not bringing us any significant benefit in taking out top AQ leaders - and is being used instead to kill Pakistan Taliban or Afghan Taliban militants - what exactly is it worth to us?  How is it furthering the US national interest?

Keep in mind, in order to maintain this drone war we provide significant assistance to Pakistan of several billion dollars a year; we look the other way at Pakistani support for Afghan Taliban insurgents; we watch with frustration as the Pakistan government thumbs it's nose at the United States with the recent Ray Davis scandal; we barely raise a public stink over the fact that the man who killed 3,000 Americans has been living in Pakistan for about 9 years . . and what are we getting in return? 

Supposedly one item was the ability to fly drone aircraft in Pakistan's tribal areas - and now we discover that even that isn't much bringing the United States much gain. If you think about it the only thing we're getting out of this relationship - of tangible benefit - is the Pakistanis allowing us to use their country as a transit point for bringing materials into Afghanistan. So what we have here is a dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan that harms the US national interest but is maintained, in some measure, to allow us to continue fighting a war in Afghanistan that is tangential from US national interests.

Ladies and Gentlemen, your 2011 United States Foreign Policy!

Of course I'm being overly flippant: there obviously is an argument to be made that if the United States wasn't using drones in Pakistan it would enable al Qaeda to regenerate and began plotting and training for terrorist attacks against the United States. As a deterrent effect alone, the drones are a key element in degrading al Qaeda's capabilities. But if that's the case why are we spending so much energy and time killing low-level militants? I understand why we for a brief time ramped up the drone attacks; but why are we continuing to do so? Shouldn't the drone be focused largely on killing the top operatives and not wasting our time with small potatoes?

The Post quotes defenders of the drones program saying that "empirical evidence suggests that the ramped-up targeting of lesser-known militants has helped to keep the United States safe."

Not only does that seem very hard to believe (after all AQ was only successful on 9/11 because they had the money and masterminds to plot major attacks; the presence of low-level operatives was less vital) but it also seems to ignore the fact that there is a price to be paid for waging these attacks.

Already we've seen blowback from them, not only in the form of the attempted Times Square bombing last summer, but also in negatively affecting US relations with Pakistan (and most certainly US public opinion in Pakistan). One can imagine that the Raymond Davis incident would not be happening if not for the fact that the US was firing drones into NW Pakistan.

But here's the bottom line: the rationale for escalation in Afghanistan was that we had to fight al Qaeda. Part of that rationale rested on the idea that by being in Afghanistan we could more effectively wage the drone war in Pakistan. 

Now it turns out the drone war is barely even killing top al Qaeda lieutenants; we hear from Administration officials that AQAP in Yemen is actually a greater national security threat to the United States; and we have repeated examples that Pakistan has virtually no interest in being an effective US partner in the fight against jihadist terror groups and is actively fanning the flames of US hatred, in part because of a drone war that isn't really achieving its stated purpose.

Other than that the war in Afghanistan seems to be going swimmingly.


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