Drone bashing seems to be in vogue these days, especially in on the liberal end of the media spectrum. Many of these critiques are based on faulty information or focus entirely on the most extreme examples or hypothetical situations, such as whether the government could target a US citizen sitting at a Starbucks in NYC. Of course, these arguments are feed by our own elected officials, sometimes of the conservative bent (I’m pointing at you, Rand Paul).
I would like to point out one beacon of sanity among these shrill arguments. Hassan Abbas, in his article at the Atlantic, criticizes US drone policy in Pakistan, does a remarkable job of producing a relatively balanced argument, while still clearly landing on the liberal end of the spectrum. I don’t agree with all of his assessments, or even all of his “ground realities.” For example, it is particularly questionable that we know that around 50-60% of all drone victims have been civilians. Verifying just the numbers is a difficult task, and classifying the victims into combatants and civilians even harder–and his reliance on “local estimates” falls prey to his own critique of the bias in other studies.
However, I actually do agree with his basic assessment of the situation. The use of drones allows policy-makers to feel like they are doing something about the situation, while they are in fact ignoring the underlying issues. For example, as Abbas notes,
“There were roughly 350 drone strikes in the tribal areas since 2004, at an exorbitant cost (even though drone strikes offer a cheaper option in comparison to “boots on ground”). But how many schools were opened in the region over the same period of time? The answer is distressing, as the number of schools has actually declined sharply.”
This is a relatively common argument among the few drone critics who go beyond the temptation to focus on gore or appeals to sovereignty, and take a more nuanced view. But Abbas goes one step further, pointing out the role of those the US drone campaign targets:
“Damages to more than 460 schools throughout the tribal belt at the hands of Taliban has in fact displaced 62,000 children, including 23,000 girls, from school. It doesn’t require very high intelligence to guess that in the absence of schools, and with an increase in violence, what kind of future awaits these kids. Drone strikes may take out some of those who destroyed these schools, but that is hardly a sustainable solution to the larger problem.”
And in this, he is absolutely right. The situation in which the youth were placed in the 1980s and 90s was one of the factors leading to the rise of the Taliban. And as Abbas points out, drones can do little to protect the youth, and nothing to build them new school or provide quality teachers. The drone campaign doesn’t even try to do these things.
After all, our drone policy is basically a band-aid solution. It is designed to keep the leadership of al-Qaeda and the Taliban on the run, but has no hope of finally defeating either organization. However, it is folly to think that just because drones will not solve the security or humanitarian issues in Pakistan and Afghanistan, we should abandon the policy. That said, Abbas is perfectly correct that the solution is not sustainable. It must be augmented (and eventually entirely replaced) by policy directed at the human dimension.
One problem there, though: No one knows how to do that. Any ideas?
Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research