Conflict & Justice

As drone war ramps up, so does criticism of it


Pakistanis shout slogans during a demonstration in Quetta, on July 19, 2011, to protest against U.S. drone attacks.


Banaras Khan

What does Clark County, Nev. have in common with North Waziristan?

Both are key sites in the U.S. drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Unmanned aerial vehicles are robotically controlled by operators in Nevada, who steer them toward their targets thousands of miles away in the tribal regions of Pakistan.

Battlefield drones are quickly changing the face of contemporary warfare and have support among U.S. policymakers for their cost effectiveness and potential to mitigate danger to pilots and infantry soldiers on the ground.

But as the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama increasingly relies on drones in its war against terrorism, criticism of the strategy is also increasing. Civilian deaths remain a point of major contention, as is what some say are the structural shortcomings of the program itself.

A former Marine officer now working as a consultant for the military, business and technology community said the drone program was deeply flawed because of its reliance on a disparate group of people that includes everyone from policymakers in Washington, to the "eccentric engineer" at a research lab in Boston, to "the kid with the joystick outside of Las Vegas launching a missile toward the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier."

GlobalPost in North Waziristan: Obama's hidden war

The former officer, who asked that his name not be used, said that the striking disconnect between these groups could have grave consequences down the line.

“There is no accountability,” he said, adding that without effective policy or adequate oversight, the drone war is in danger of setting back what little progress has been made in Pakistan.

He said the strategy was “very shortsighted” and could be doing more harm than good by driving average Pakistanis, who might not be aligned with one side or the other, into the hands of the militants.

"We can't give [Washington] too much credit," he said. "No one is looking three, four, five years down the line here."

If they were looking down the line, he said, they’d see that this kind of virtual war creates a barrier to understanding the realities on the ground. An operator in Nevada pressing the launch button, for instance, has little understanding of the effect it will have on the ground in Pakistan.

"When there is no infantry soldier on the ground, there is no one to calm things down," he said, referring to the practice of doing damage control and collecting information after aerial attacks are made.

The Pakistan government, for its part, appears to be growing increasingly frustrated with the U.S. drone program, which would be in line with the sentiment of Pakistanis in general.

During Obama’s first year in office, the U.S. launched 35 drone strikes inside Pakistan. In 2009, there were 53, and by 2010 the annual tally reached 117. In response to the climb in attacks and a reflection of growing tensions, Pakistan forced the U.S. to close its drone base in Pakistan in late June.

Pakistan's reaction seems to have little impact on the U.S. program. The Pentagon now has about 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago. Within the next decade, the Air Force expects the number of "multirole" (surveillance and combat) drones to reach 536, nearly four times today's stock.

— Emily Gogolak