Over the past three weeks, the United States has conducted 20 unmanned drone strikes in Pakistan, more than in any month since the campaign began six years ago. In total, the American forces have launched around 170 attacks against suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in northwest Pakistan. They are classified as "covert actions," and unacknowledged by U.S. government officials.
Nevertheless, using elliptical yet laudatory language, U.S. officials have characterized the drone strikes as "completely essential" and "the only game in town." As the nation reads "Obama's Wars," Bob Woodward's account of the contentious White House arguments over escalation in Afghanistan, this secret war especially needs scrutiny.
Undoubtedly, drone strikes are an effective military tactic. They have killed about 100 Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, and perhaps 1,000 lower-level militants, with no risk to deployed U.S. personnel. Only limited civilian casualties have been reported.
Yet, military victory is not tantamount to political success. The question is whether the drones alone can achieve the United States' primary political objective: coercing Al Qaeda and affiliated extremist groups not to use Pakistan's rugged easternmost regions to train recruits and plan international terrorist operations.