The Way Forward in the Drone War

About two weeks ago, I promised to outline a new approach to the US’s national security problems in Pakistan as a way to end or reduce the reliance on drone warfare. Here it is, at least in broad outlines:

The Way Forward in the Drone War

So far, the Obama administration has pursued the defeat of Al Qaeda and the Taliban overwhelmingly through the use of drone strikes against their leadership and, to a lesser extent, their fighters. But this strategy has a fundamental flaw: it is unwinnable. No plan appears to be in place on how to move from the use of force to the political neutralization of these organizations. And until the enemy is defeated politically, they will keep rising up against us, damaged but not defeated. Indeed, the reliance on the use of force can actually aggravate the situation by turning the population against us, thus expanding our enemies’ support base.

The basic goal in Pakistan is not to kill all terrorists and insurgents, but to limit their ability to carry out operations against the US and our allies, including Afghanistan. The strategy for addressing these threats must therefore also focus on the ability of the enemy to carry out these operations, and not focus exclusively on killing, whether in terms of “body counts” or the elimination of key leaders.

At its roots, the conflict in Pakistan is a form of irregular warfare between several competing actors:

  • State Actors, most notably Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US, but also India, and to some degree Iran and China.
  • Non-state actors, including Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan, the Haqqani Group, and Hulbuddin Hekmatyars’ Hezb-e-Islami, as well as several anti-Indian Pakistani groups.

As terrorists and insurgents, these groups find shelter among and require the support of some segment of the population they find shelter among. Most also rely heavily on some outside benefactor for funding, supplies, and recruits.  By undermining this support, much more damage can be done to the organization and its ability to conduct operations than is done by mere attrition or “decapitation.”

The US should therefore adopt an approach to the Pakistani situation that focuses on undermining the legitimacy and influence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while seeking to improve its own image. This type of strategy is often misconstrued as “winning hearts and minds.” But it is important to understand that it is much more about gaining respect and support of the population, reducing the support enjoyed by the opposition, and bolstering that given to our local partners. The population does not need to love us, or even really like us, so long as they understand our motives and do not feel compelled to oppose us. In fact, in most cases, the less they notice us the better.

Focusing on “hearts and minds” instead of legitimacy and influence is wrongheaded because the conduct of irregular warfare, such as that occurring in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is inherently political. While all wars are fundamentally fought for political reasons, political aspects are at the forefront of every level of irregular warfare. In order to subvert the popular support of an insurgency or terrorist campaign, the political demands of that population must be taken into account. This is where the US struggled in its early endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The people in those countries did not want to be placated with goodies brought by foreigners, but had legitimate needs and demands that they felt were unfulfilled. The same is true in Pakistan, and it is these political demands that must be the centerpiece of our efforts there.

To be successful, any approach to a situation as complex as that in Pakistan must adopt be fully integrated, blending all the elements of national power and addressing all major aspects of the situation. The response must balance combat activities with security assistance and stabilization, engagement, and reconstruction and relief. Both this strategy and all of its elements must be tailored to fit the unique characteristics of the theater. Just because something worked in Iraq does not mean it will work in Pakistan.

The Primacy of the Narrative

In order to achieve such a population-centric, politically-focused campaign, the US cannot rely on its military and paramilitary capabilities alone. The military and CIA will of course have a role to play, but this role must be one of supporting the overall effort.  They will even be required to apply the same type of force that they have been asked to use over the last several years, but only in coordination and in support of the political plan to take control of the narrative.

Our adversaries in al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their like have learned long before we have to plan their activities and operations around highly sophisticated communications strategies. They use to their benefit the globalization of communications and information to project their version of events and their ideology to their supporters at home and abroad, leveraging elements of the population who can hold sway with the general population. Thus far, they have had a distinct advantage in this, in that we have done little or nothing to counter it. But we need not lose this “Battle of the Narrative.”

Identifying the critical audiences is not a simple task, and some prioritization is necessary. For example, while rural Pakistanis are the ones most closely connected to the insurgency and more directly affected by US drone strikes, it is probably the urban population that is most immediately necessary to sway. This is the population the Pakistani media is most interested in targeting, and is most likely to have an impact upon US access to and sway with Pakistani leadership. By convincing them that the US is not the big bad wolf trying to blow their house down, the US will have much more latitude to conduct the various other activities required to reduce the threat emanating from the rural areas.

The Ways of Irregular Warfare

With the strategic messaging goals clearly in mind, other operations and activities can then be planned. Just as in Afghanistan, these activities will necessarily involve some blend of counterterrorism, foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency and stability operations. In addition to these basic lines of effort, we must also be prepared to conduct psychological and information operations, civil-military operations and law enforcement support.

Counterterrorism is our current modus operandi, and is epitomized by our reliance on drone warfare to decapitate the Al Qaeda and Taliban organizations by eliminating their leadership. It is also our counterterrorism campaign that most angers Pakistanis and turns international public opinion against us. However, our counterterrorism efforts should not be halted altogether. They have been extraordinarily successful despite the outcry. But, our efforts in this realm—including drone strikes—must be made subordinate to and supportive of the overall. This means more than just reducing civilian casualties (already remarkably low), but active coordination between counterterrorism operators and strategic communications planners.

But irregular conflicts are rarely won by force alone. More often than not, military operations merely buy time and shape the environment. Instead, it will be the Pakistani state and the services and security that it can provide that will prove to be the end of the Taliban—and with them, Al Qaeda’s longest-standing safe haven.

Therefore, the US must find ways to bolster the Pakistani state and its police and judicial services, as these are one of the primary sore points leading to support for the Taliban. This will be difficult to achieve. We already provide Pakistan with substantial aid, totaling nearly $20 billion since 9/11. Nearly half of that amount goes directly to the military, and a substantial portion of that military aid was diverted to preparing for Pakistan’s presumed future war with India. There is little reason to believe that this is not still the case. We must therefore boost the amount of aid that is earmarked for non-military stability operations, most notably their pathetic police and courts, and find ways of ensuring that aid dollars are properly spent.

One of the wrinkles in this situation is that we will necessarily be working at cross-purposes with ourselves (as we already are). Because the Pakistani government is the primary benefactor of the Afghan Taliban, but is under attack from its ally the Pakistan Taliban, we will be forced to oppose the insurgents while supporting their benefactor. However, through targeted messaging aimed at the linkage between the government and these armed groups, we may be able to reduce or eliminate that connection over an extended period of time.

In the long run, the most vital need will be to address Pakistan’s reason for supporting these groups, that is, its fear of India and consequent the need for “strategic depth” and a friendly, anti-India regime in Afghanistan. Because it is a smaller and in many ways inherently weaker state than its rival, Pakistan will naturally gravitate to asymmetric methods, such as terrorism, and insurgency. Thus, improving relations between India and Pakistan, while clearly the hardest piece of the puzzle, is also the most important piece.

More—and Deeper—Thought is Required

Clearly, this is only the beginning of a strategy for dealing with the terrorist and insurgent threats emanating from Pakistan’s rural areas. Much more thought and consideration must be had before a clear plan can be formulated, whether based upon the principles outlined above or some other concept. Unfortunately, few of those who most publicly advocate for various courses of action (liberal, conservative, neo-liberal, isolationist or interventionist) understand either the nuances of the situation in Pakistan or the nature of irregular threats.

Sadly, none of this is news to our defense and intelligence communities. They are the guiltiest of all of shallow thinking, since it is the DoD doctrine forged upon our experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan that I based this approach upon.

Over the next few weeks, I will try to post in more detail about some of the concepts discussed above. In the mean time, when reading the thoughts of others on this subject, be sure to be skeptical of simple plans, from “Drones work!” to “Get the hell out!”

This entry was posted in Drones, Military, Terrorism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , by paulwtaylor. Bookmark the permalink.

About paulwtaylor

Paul is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Policy & Research and an alumnus of Seton Hall Law School and the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Having obtained a joint-degree in law and international relations, he has studied international security, causes of war, national security law, and international law. Additionally, Paul is a veteran of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, with deployments to both Afghanistan and to Iraq, and has worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and Global Action to Prevent War. He has also participated in habeas litigation for Guantanamo Bay detainees and investigated various government policies and practices. In addition to his duties as a member of the editorial staff of, Paul now works at Cydecor, Inc., a defense contractor focused on naval irregular and expeditionary warfare. Paul's research and writing focuses on targeted killing, direct action, drones, and the automation of warfare.

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