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U.S. Air Strikes in Pakistan "Ineffective"

Interviewee: Micah Zenko, Fellow for Conflict Prevention, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer, CFR.org
August 11, 2009

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To eliminate militant safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas, the United States has been allegedly increasing its use of unmanned drone aircraft such as Predators and Reapers to fire missiles. The program, operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), remains covert, but according to the Center for American Progress, there have been sixty-eight attacks since 2006. CFR Fellow Micah Zenko says that as a counterinsurgency tool, these attacks are generally ineffective. "The use of drones is just one tactical response to what needs to be a comprehensive long-term strategy," he says. Since the summer of 2008, these air strikes have been used to target militants from all groups, he says, not just al-Qaeda, essentially turning the CIA "into a counterinsurgency air force for the government of Pakistan." Zenko recommends more U.S. government oversight over U.S. air strikes. "Until they can be discussed, assessed, and evaluated openly--or at least by Congress and the relevant intelligence committees--it's very hard to know if these work or not."

There  have been reports that Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud was recently killed by a U.S. drone attack. How do you think, if this turns out to be true, it will affect the use of this tactic in countering militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

I don't think it will change it at all. The scope and intensity of the strikes will remain as they were beforehand.

Do you think that's the way it should be?

It's difficult to say, because they are all unacknowledged and covert. You can't really assess if and when they do work. Even in this case, we don't know [if Mehsud was killed] because there's no evidence to say so either way. In the absence of any greater insight or information, I tend toward the belief that they do not work very well. It depends on what your strategic objectives are.

If the objective is what President [Barack] Obama says, which is to disrupt and dismantle al-Qaeda and those responsible for 9/11, then it generally has not been that effective. As a counterinsurgency tool, it's generally ineffective. If it's a counterterrorism objective, they can be effective, but we really do not have enough evidence to suggest the truth either way. One of the things that I've consistently said is the need to have oversight over this policy and get out of the myth that these are covert. They're no longer covert operations by the definition under the National Security Act of 1947. Until they can be discussed, assessed, and evaluated openly--or at least by Congress and the relevant intelligence committees--it's very hard to know if these work or not.

"As a counterinsurgency tool, [the drone attacks are] generally ineffective. If it's a counterterrorism objective, they can be effective, but we really do not have enough evidence to suggest the truth either way."

You said they could be effective as a counterterrorism tool. Could you elaborate a bit on how they could be effective?

If they're only killing the targeted individuals and not killing innocent bystanders, it can be an effective tool. But it's only one component of what should be a comprehensive national strategy, and we've never had a comprehensive national strategy in Pakistan or elsewhere. In the absence of knowing where this one tool fits into all of the other instruments of national power, it's very difficult to know how well it's working.

There have been some reports about there being more cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence and military over the use of these drones. Do you think that could be effective?

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

There has been a lot of cooperation since the beginning. These planes fly out of Pakistan. They don't fly there secretly; they don't fly there without the knowledge of relevant Pakistani security agencies. So there obviously had to be cooperation very early on. Pakistan has also cooperated in terms of helping find the targets with sources on the ground early on. The CIA doesn't operate on the ground or in the air without the full knowledge and consent of the Pakistani government. What you're discussing is the passing of real-time overhead imagery to the Pakistani ground forces that are operating in South Waziristan, and that's fine with me. I have no bias or opinion about providing intelligence or surveillance to Pakistani ground forces. I'm more interested in those strikes done by U.S. forces in kinetic offensive operations against the Taliban.

Is there a clear policy on who the drones target? Is it al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, or the Pakistani Taliban?

The answer is yes, it's all of them.

Do you think there's one group the United States should be focusing on in terms of U.S. national interests?

If you believe what the president says about the U.S. strategic goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan to deter, disrupt, and dismantle al-Qaeda, then they should be high value al-Qaeda targets.

And that's not been the only real target.

No, it hasn't been since summer 2008 when the Bush administration widely expanded the number of people who could be hit and the decision was made to essentially turn the CIA into a counterinsurgency air force for the government of Pakistan, which in many respects we are today.

How would you describe U.S. military policy on Pakistan?

There's almost no U.S. military policy on Pakistan. There's limited foreign internal assistance in terms of counterinsurgency training. There are a very small number of [U.S.] troops [inside Pakistan]. The other part is large payment for the Pakistani army to conduct operations. That's the extent of our military policy.

However, there is the use of drones, even though they're covert.

This is a CIA operation and in no way connected to the Department of Defense.

How should the United States go about tackling the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan?

"[The airstrikes are] only one component of what should be a comprehensive national strategy, and we've never had a comprehensive national strategy in Pakistan or elsewhere."

[The United States should] create a comprehensive national strategy involving all instruments of American national power to achieve the strategic objectives put forward by President Obama. And [it should] have a national debate about whether or not the United States is committed to do so, and whether or not the current ruling regime in Pakistan is committed to doing so, and whether whoever wins the presidential election in Afghanistan is willing to do so. The use of drones is just one tactical response to what needs to be a comprehensive long-term strategy, and they should be seen as only part of the strategy. Until this comprehensive strategy is made, we should not assume that drones are anything other than a quick-fix answer to some short-term problems. They won't resolve the problem comprehensively.

The use of drones has also fed into the larger debate over covert warfare and rules of engagement. Do you think this undermines U.S. foreign policy in the region?

No, not necessarily. Again, the use of drones is not very well connected to other U.S. foreign policy goals or interests. U.S. foreign policy is the domain of the State Department, and the State Department has no say in drone strategy, tactics, or targets. Most people see them as such. I don't think it has a huge impact.

Are they keeping with the international laws of war? There has been some debate over that.

According to the United States, they are legal. I'm not an international lawyer, but the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston, has written on the Predator strikes in Pakistan. The position of the United States in a military order dated November 13, 2001, is that al-Qaeda, in the nature of its attacks against the United States and U.S. forces, created a state of war with the United States, and as such, the United States is at war with al-Qaeda. Therefore, only the laws of war apply, not other international legal standards. That argument claims that the strikes are legal. I can't judge whether or not they are. There is very little international condemnation on these attacks from any people.

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