Wednesday's New York Times featured an article discussing an Obama administration debate about whether to expand the use of US Predator drone strikes into the Pakistani province of Baluchistan - especially around the city of Quetta. So far, almost all of the strikes have been against suspected al-Qaeda or Taliban operatives located in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that border southeastern Afghanistan. The rationale for expanding these attacks, and for possibly launching small-unit commando raids, is to go after the Afghan Taliban Council that primarily supplies the insurgency in Afghanistan and "is operating openly ... in Quetta," according to recent Senate testimony by the defence intelligence agency director, Lieutenant General Michael Maples.
The geographic expansion of Predator strikes further into Pakistan will likely undermine the longer-term objectives of what President Obama has termed the "enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism". But in a tactical effort to reduce the flow of Taliban militants and material from Pakistan to Afghanistan, the US might be enlarging the recruitment pool of disgruntled Pakistanis who seek revenge against the United States, its allies in Afghanistan or the government in Islamabad.
It is worth noting that the growth in Predator strikes began well before Barack Obama entered the White House, and has continued at a steady clip in the past two months. As this timeline and corresponding map from the Centre for American Progress show, the number of Predator strikes has grown exponentially in the past nine months.
From the 2004-2005 period until August 2008, the United States conducted about a dozen known Predator strikes in Pakistan, or two to three a year. The targets were senior al-Qaeda or Taliban officials - such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Hamza Rabia - who were largely from the Persian Gulf, but also Uzbekistan.
Since last August, there have been an additional 40 strikes, including a half-dozen since President Obama took office. The targets of the most recent attacks have been the training camps run by Baitullah Mehsud - a Pakistani national who is suspected of having orchestrated the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and who seeks to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
The covert program that began as an effort to kill high-value al-Qaeda and Taliban officials responsible for previous international terror attacks (and who continue to provide strategic guidance to the global jihadist movement) has since led to the CIA's serving, in effect, as a counterinsurgency arm of the Pakistani air force.
This geographic expansion of the Predator strikes currently under debate within the Obama administration will likely have mixed results on the tactical front, and will harm the strategic objectives in the global war on terrorism.
The tactical objective is to kill or disrupt Taliban operatives in Baluchistan who feed the insurgency in southern Afghanistan. To make a meaningful impact in halting the supply lines, however, there will have to be a significant growth in the number and lethality of Predator strikes and commando raids. Given that the Quetta area alone has a population of over one million people, there will be additional civilian casualties, and corresponding anger directed against the governments in Islamabad and Washington. According to one estimate by Agence France Presse, Predator strikes have killed "more than 340 people since August 2008", a fair number of whom are civilians. Furthermore, Pakistani intelligence agencies have reported that refugees from Afghanistan have flocked to the Taliban by the hundreds to avenge the drones' killings of innocent civilians.
Along with creating future Taliban operatives, US covert operations harm the one institution that is best suited to eliminate al-Qaeda and Taliban safe havens: the Pakistani army. In October 2008, according to a news report, the national intelligence council warned the Bush White House in an oral briefing that further raids into Pakistan would "benefit the political-military organisations allied with the Taliban" and threaten the unity of the Pakistani military.
Strategically, the long-term goals of the global war on terrorism - winning the hearts and minds of Pakistanis who are neutral, or of militants who are reconcilable - will suffer. Although he made countless missteps in his time as secretary of defence, in an October 2003 internal memo to senior Pentagon officials Donald Rumsfeld presciently asked the key question for limited military solutions to the war on terrorism: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?" The answer remains a loud "no", and expanding the territory that the United States bombs won't help.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.