Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan’

Jeff Huber’s recent piece describes the “tragic flaw” of the Obama presidency in his recent piece:

Candidate Obama stuck his nose in the wringer when he deflected criticism of his vote against the surge in Iraq by saying it took vital assets away from the effort in Afghanistan, the “war of necessity.” That may turn out to be the tragic flaw of his presidency. The war in Afghanistan is no more necessary than most other American wars have been. None of the 9/11 attackers came from Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda isn’t there any more. As best we can tell, what remains of al-Qaeda is in Pakistan, and very little remains of it.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit

At least Michael Scheuer’s snarling, morally bankrupt piece (oddly promoted as the front-page story on Foreign Policy Magazine‘s website) correctly diagnoses the problem in Afghanistan: the anti-government elements have put the U.S. and allied forces in a position where “winning” (defined as “defeating” the Taliban) would require actions so brutal and expensive that they are beyond the pale for our political leadership. But rather than salute the allied forces for their principles, Scheuer assails them, telling them to “Get Nasty or Go Home.”

First, Scheuer begins from a correct description of the phase shift we’ve seen in the past few years in the content of the insurgency:

Until roughly late 2006, the war against the U.S.-NATO coalition was largely fought by the Taliban, other Islamists groups like that led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and al Qaeda. Since then, however, the Islamists have been joined by Afghans who simply do not want Muslim Afghanistan occupied by all sorts of infidels from all sorts of Christian and polytheist countries. In short, an Islamist insurgency has evolved into an Islamist-nationalist freedom struggle not unlike that which beat the Red Army.

Supporting Scheuer’s analysis is the rapid insurgent numbers growth from 7,000 to 25,000 between 2006 and today. According to a recent Boston Globe report,

WASHINGTON – Nearly all of the insurgents battling US and NATO troops in Afghanistan are not religiously motivated Taliban and Al Qaeda warriors, but a new generation of tribal fighters vying for control of territory, mineral wealth, and smuggling routes, according to summaries of new US intelligence reports.

“Ninety percent is a tribal, localized insurgency,’’ said one US intelligence official in Washington who helped draft the assessments. “Ten percent are hardcore ideologues fighting for the Taliban.’’

From here, however, things go off the rails. You can almost feel the spit landing on your face:

Team Obama faces quite a dilemma. McChrystal’s plan to stave off defeat by asking for substantial immediate reinforcements — a request that is still far short of what is needed to “win” in Afghanistan — is a sure sign that long-term intense fighting and high casualties lie ahead. The United States’ latest Nobel Prize winner now has a choice: He must act quickly on the advice of McChrystal and the U.S. intelligence community to save a marooned U.S. Army, or dither behind the harebrained split-al-Qaeda-from-the-Taliban strategizing and let more overmatched U.S. soldiers and Marines die amid the ego-building praise of effete Americans, pacifist NGOs, and the Nobelistas.

Then, oddly, he tells us that drawing down forces in Afghanistan is the only way to mellow the insurgency.

As long as U.S. forces are in Afghanistan, this reality will remain the same. The only way to create a less threatening Taliban is for the Obama administration to admit defeat and turn over Afghanistan to Mullah Omar, knowing that he will allow bin Laden and al Qaeda to stay in place and that U.S. defeat will have an enormous galvanizing impact on the Islamist movement around the world.

Okay wait…if we withdraw our troops from Afghanistan, it will take the steam out of the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban are rich and al-Qaida is begging for cash, meaning the Taliban don’t need al-Qaeda funding. and it’s not at all clear that the Afghan Taliban will find it in their self-interest nor to their taste to host al-Qaeda again. From a recent issue of AFCEA Intelligence’s NightWatch analysis [h/t Gareth Porter]:

The point worth noting is that the [October 7] Taliban posting reinforces the statement on Sunday by US National Security Advisor Jones that there are fewer than 100 al Qaida in Afghanistan.  Al Qaida is not welcome in Afghanistan by either side of the fight. The statement posted on the website is accurate, based on the past eight years.  The Taliban resurgence is a home grown development that did not appeal to, rely on or seek Arab or al Qaida help, according to information in the public domain.

After their ouster from Kandahar in 2001, the Taliban openly derided the Arabs of al Qaida and blamed them for the Taliban’s misfortunes. They vowed never to allow the foreigners — especially the haughty, insensitive Arabs — back into Afghanistan, consistent with the history of Pashtun xenophobia. They have been true to that vow ever since, as General Jones confirmed, indirectly.

The premise that Afghanistan would become an al Qaida safe haven under any future government is alarmist and bespeaks a lack of understanding of the Pashtuns on this issue and a superficial knowledge of recent Afghan history.

In December 2001, Omar was ridiculed in public by his own commanders for inviting the “Arabs” and other foreigners, which led to their flight to Pakistan.

But here’s the rub, tough guy: pouring hundreds of thousands of Western troops into Afghanistan will also have an enormous galvanizing impact on the Islamist movement around the world. The difference is that the former has absolutely no chance of bankrupting the U.S. and ending Obama’s hopes for his agenda, while the latter certainly could.

So let’s see:

  • Option 1: Propaganda win for jihadist terrorists, risk of terror attacks and all the costs they entail;
  • Option 2: Propaganda win for jihadist terrorists, risk of terror attacks and all the costs they entail, certain U.S. military casualties, and massive economic damage.

Gee, this is a tough call.

But wait, there’s more!

Because the U.S.-NATO occupation powers the Afghan insurgency and international Muslim support for it, we must either destroy it root and branch or leave. This issue merits debate, but that must wait until McChrystal gets the troops needed to delay defeat. Afterward, only the all-out use of large, conventional U.S. military forces can be expected to have a shot at winning in Afghanistan. Since 1996, the United States has definitively proven that clandestine operations, covert action, Special Forces actions, and aerial drone attacks cannot defeat al Qaeda. It has likewise proven beyond doubt that nation-building in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand.

That said, military victory would require 400,000 to 500,000 additional troops, the wide use of land mines (even if Princess Diana spins in her grave), and the killing of the enemy and its civilian supporters in the numbers needed to make them admit the game is not worth the candle. This clearly is not a viable option. We do not have enough troops, and U.S. political leaders, many U.S. generals, and the anti-American academy and media do not think “military victory” is an appropriate or moral goal; their mantra is: “Better dead Americans at home and abroad than criticism from Europe, the media, and the academy.”

Wait, what? The coalition is a bunch of spineless wimps if they don’t throw in 500,000 more troops? With land-mines? Nonchalant killing of civilians? Let me translate:

You bunch of wimps don’t have the balls to destroy Afghanistan, so f*** you, you anti-American bookworm p*****s! Leave! When you get hit with a terror attack, I’ll be happy to tell you ‘I told you so!’

What is this garbage doing on the front page of Foreign Policy Magazine?

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

Apparently I underestimated the U.S. government’s capacity for crazy.

Last week, I said:

The prospects for success of a quick, violent blow are dim.  The hardened core of the Taliban is the Quetta Shura Taliban. It’s called the Quetta Shura Taliban because it’s based in Quetta, capital of Balochistan in Pakistan. That’s where we suspect Mullah Omar and possibly Osama bin Laden hide from U.S. forces. It’s also a major city of 750,000+ people, almost all of them non-combatants. Thus, our ability to strike the “violent blow” that could end the al-Qaida/Taliban threat (assuming we’re not willing to drop 600,000+ troops into Afghanistan tomorrow to suddenly begin a textbook counterinsurgency) would depend on our willingness to repeat the carnage of Fallujah 2004 in a city roughly twice its size. This move would ignite Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it would put their nuclear arsenal on the game board in the scramble.

In the days after my attribution of a modicum of good sense and humanitarian concern to the U.S. government, the Telegraph reported that the U.S. is threatening to launch drone attacks against suspected Taliban targets in Quetta. The story labels this potential move a “major escalation,” and they’re not kidding.

[L]ast week Anne Patterson, America’s ambassador to Islamabad, told the Daily Telegraph that the offensive in Swat was not targeting the insurgents posing the greatest danger to Nato forces in Afghanistan.An official at the Pakistani interior ministry told the Daily Telegraph: “The Americans said we have been raising this issue with you time and again. These elements are attacking Nato forces in southern Afghanistan, especially in Helmand. The Americans said ‘If you don’t take action, we will.'”

US unmanned drone strikes have so far been confined to Pakistan’s federally administrated tribal border regions where Islamabad holds little sway. But attacks in or around Quetta, in Baluchistan, would strike deep into the Pakistan government’s territory and are likely to cause a huge outcry in the country.

This is crazy town, people. An attack on Quetta would cause a phase shift in Pakistan. We’re talking destabilization par excellence. A recent poll by Gallup Pakistan showed that the Pakistanis view the U.S. as the biggest threat to their country, far surpassing India and the Taliban:

When respondents were asked what they consider to be the biggest threat to the nation of Pakistan, 11 per cent of the population identified the Taliban fighters, who have been blamed for scores of deadly bomb attacks across the country in recent years.

Another 18 per cent said that they believe that the greatest threat came from neighbouring India, which has fought three wars with Pakistan since partition in 1947.

But an overwhelming number, 59 per cent of respondents, said the greatest threat to Pakistan right now is, in fact, the US…

That kind of visceral reaction to the United States comes, in large part, from a popular rejection of U.S. drone activity over Pakistan. From a May op-ed in the NYT by Kilcullen and Exum:

[T]he drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians…the strikes are now exciting visceral opposition across a broad spectrum of Pakistani opinion in Punjab and Sindh, the nation’s two most populous provinces. Covered extensively by the news media, drone attacks are popularly believed to have caused even more civilian casualties than is actually the case. The persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people’s deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan’s instability.

An airstrike open-season over Quetta would be the apotheosis of stupid. It would cause public opinion in Pakistan regarding the U.S. to metastasize further while increasing sympathy for the Taliban and al-Qaida. The Pakistani civilian government, already pushed by public outrage into publicly distancing themselves from the drone policy and assuring their populace that it would end soon, would look impotent and consent to their governance could become brittle. In short, we’d succeed in taking on the role we’ve attributed to the Taliban–the destabilizer of a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

In addition to lighting the fuse on the instability mentioned above, there’s the moral repugnance of firing ordinance into such a densely populated area. From a March NYT story on the same topic:

Missile strikes or American commando raids in the city of Quetta or the teeming Afghan settlements and refugee camps around the city and near the Afghan border would carry high risks of civilian casualties, American officials acknowledge.

Drone operators executing strikes in Pakistan tend to rely on spotters on the ground placing infrared beacons near suspected Taliban targets. (Otherwise, the drone operators are firing on people that appear to be moving dots on the ground, indistinguishable from non-combatants.) Those beacons are often placed by paid informants who have financial incentives to place as many of them as possible, meaning there’s no guarantee the missiles will hit actual Taliban. Thus, the drone strikes have killed massive numbers of civilians and relatively few suspected Taliban or other combatants. But, even if you’re fine with the potential for non-combatant deaths, you still need some functional intel coming in to guide the strikes if the purpose is to kill Mullah Omar and/or Bin Laden.

The Telegraph’s story seems to make clear that we either lack actionable intelligence, or we lack confidence that the Pakistanis wouldn’t tip off the targets and allow them to escape:

Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, said the US had so far been unable to provide detailed intelligence to target the Quetta Shura. He said: “We need real-time intelligence. The Americans have never told us any location.”

The lack of trust and/or usable intelligence leads the U.S. to consider even worse ideas, like sending U.S. commandos into Quetta:

Western intelligence officers say Pakistan has been moving Taliban leaders to the volatile city of Karachi, where it would be impossible to strike. US officials have even discussed sending commandos to Quetta to capture or kill the Taliban chiefs before they are moved.

As Joshua Foust noted back in 2008, if we take this belligerent stance of, “Do it or by God we’ll do it,” and then we follow through with boots on the ground or missiles from the air without the authorization of the Pakistani government, it’d be tantamount to a declaration of war on Pakistan.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

The Pentagon expects to receive General McChrystal’s troop request by the end of the week (remember, you heard it here first). If we accept Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell’s remarks during today’s press briefing, Defense Secretary Gates will pocket the document until the Obama Administration completes its strategic review. But, Morrell is clearly working to prevent the document from becoming a “moment of truth” for the secretary and the president, and I would be very surprised if a strategy assessment took place without a cost/benefit analysis. After all, a discussion on strategy not constrained by resource considerations would produce strategies as useful as a retirement plan that included “win the lottery” as a necessary step.

Looking for evaluative tools for the upcoming troop request, I flipped through my copy of The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene and came across this passage:

…Rommel once made a distinction between a gamble and a risk. Both cases involve an action with only a chance of success, a chance that is heightened by acting with boldness. The difference is that with a risk, if you lose, you can recover: your reputation will suffer no long-term damage, your resources will not be depleted, and you can return to your original position with acceptable losses. With a gamble, on the other hand, defeat can lead to a slew of problems that are likely to spiral out of control. …[I]f you encounter difficulties in a gamble, it becomes harder to pull out–you realize that the stakes are too high; you cannot afford to lose. So you try harder to rescue the situation, often making it worse and sinking deeper in to the hole that you cannot get out of. People are drawn into gambles by their emotions…Taking risks is essential; gambling is foolhardy.

The worst way to end…a war…is slowly and painfully…Before entering any action, you must calculate in precise terms your exit strategy…If the answers…seem to vague and full of speculation, if success seems all too alluring and failure somewhat dangerous, you are more than likely taking a gamble. Your emotions are leading you into a situation that could end up a quagmire.

Before that happens, catch yourself. And if you do find you have made this mistake, you have only two rational solutions: either end the conflict as quickly as you can, with a strong, violent blow aimed to win, accepting the costs and knowing they are better than a slow and painful death, or cut your losses and quit without delay. Never let pride or concern for your reputation pull you farther into the morass; both will suffer far greater blows by your persistence. Short-term defeat is better than long-term disaster.

Greene writes these words interpreting the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. They apply equally well to the situation in which the United States finds itself in the same country.

Let’s review how we got here. (Finger-pointing, unless you were one of the brave few who were against a military response to 9/11, is useless. We got here together.) President Bush (backed by almost all of us) acted on our emotions following the attacks without planning all the way to the end. Then, he launched the Iraq war without adequately thinking through the consequences for the endeavor in Afghanistan. While President Obama correctly assailed him for the Iraq blunder (such a small, inadequate word for that crime), he and the Democrats managed a neat trick of being anti-Iraq-war hawks by promising a chest-thumping charge into Afghanistan to “finish the job.” Obama and his allies also failed to plan all the way to the end, to account for things like lost time, sputtering public enthusiasm for another presidential term lost in fever dreams of war and the awful human cost of the tough-guy promises to hit terrorists in Pakistan with drone strikes.

But, damning the torpedoes, we went full speed ahead, and in the period during which President Obama escalated drone strikes over Pakistan, ordered and escalation and then sent the new troops on a push into Helmand, the insurgent influence in Afghanistan went from this:

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Nov. 2008

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Nov. 2008

to this:

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Sept. 2009

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Sept. 2009

The number of insurgent attacks has also followed a steady upward trend since the U.S. invasion.

Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan Jan 06 - Jun 09

Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan Jan 06 - Jun 09

There’s little doubt that we’re in the morass against which Greene warns in the quote above.  It should be useful, then, to examine Greene’s “two rational solutions” to the problem: the violent, crushing blow that ends the conflict quickly, or the rapid exit to prevent a worse catastrophe.

The prospects for success of a quick, violent blow are dim.  The hardened core of the Taliban is the Quetta Shura Taliban. It’s called the Quetta Shura Taliban because it’s based in Quetta, capital of Balochistan in Pakistan. That’s where we suspect Mullah Omar and possibly Osama bin Laden hide from U.S. forces. It’s also a major city of 750,000+ people, almost all of them non-combatants. Thus, our ability to strike the “violent blow” that could end the al-Qaida/Taliban threat (assuming we’re not willing to drop 600,000+ troops into Afghanistan tomorrow to suddenly begin a textbook counterinsurgency) would depend on our willingness to repeat the carnage of Fallujah 2004 in a city roughly twice its size. This move would ignite Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it would put their nuclear arsenal on the game board in the scramble.

In other words, no sudden, violent blow, absent pristine intelligence revealing the precise, time-stamped location of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, can end this conflict quickly without entailing costs we cannot bear.

That leaves us with option 2: cut your losses and quit without delay. So why do we remain?

First, the strategic complications of the situation boggle the mind. However, the strategic implications of the region have been on our radar for years, but cooler heads without the burden of the 9/11 trauma kept the U.S. out of a heavy military operation in Afghanistan even at the height of the Afghan civil war, and I can imagine that a desire to avoid precisely this predicament played a role in those decisions. But while I do not doubt that the strategic monstrosity of Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan/Kashmir/India deeply concerns the president, I can also imagine that what really keeps him and his advisers up at night are fears of a possible crisis that would fall most heavily on the civilian population of Afghanistan following a U.S. withdrawal. The human, economic and political costs of our military operation are so high that, absent this humanitarian concern, I doubt we’d still be discussing whether to add or subtract troops. We’d be on our way home.

Regular readers of my blog know that I am a Christian whose understanding of Jesus’ teachings prevent me from supporting the use of violence in any circumstances. The far more (nominally) prevalent formulation among fellow Christians, obviously, is my faith’s adaptation of just war criteria. One of the main architects of Christian just war theory, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and tutor to Augustine, articulated the viewpoint that helped drive just war criteria into Christian thought, and it’s exactly this sentiment that keeps well-meaning people of all faiths and of no faith tethered to the moral “necessity” of a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan:

He who does not keep harm off a friend, if he can, is as much in fault as he who causes it.

This is the sentiment that bridges the gap between the Sermon on the Mount and the Christian acceptance of war. And, as much as I disagree with it (note the deftness with which it queues noble sympathy for a friend while avoiding the truly revolutionary call of Jesus to love one’s enemies and to not violently resist an evil person), I understand it. However, the middle clause of the sentence is one of the most important pieces of guidance for the just war adherent: “if he can.” Courage is not the only issue, nor is sentiment: likelihood of success is crucial. That’s why the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes in its explanation of just war this explicit restriction on military actions with poor prospects for success:

1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

3. there must be serious prospects of success;

4. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition” [CCC 2309].

Desire to keep harm off a friend is insufficient to excuse your use of violence to save him. To be morally permissible, in this view, your violence must have a serious prospect of succeeding. Otherwise one simply adds to the level of violence and suffering already present.

The U.S. lacks a credible, legitimate partner in our attempt to use counterinsurgency strategy as a means of counterterrorism, and in COIN operations you live and die by the legitimacy of the host nation government. The COIN manual goes so far as to call host nation government legitimacy the “north star.” Steadily rising attacks and maps of spreading insurgency are all symptoms of our lack of this fundamental prerequisite for the success of our chosen strategy. In addition, every single troop increase has been followed in the next year by an increased civilian casualty rate and a persistently increasing level of insurgent violence. Insurgents now have a significant presence in more than 90 percent of the country. Finally, evidence shows that even our humanitarian aid funneled through the military fuels violence in Afghanistan. We lack “serious” prospects for success; it is stretching to even say we have “credible” prospects for success. As such, our use of violence in pursuit of even humanitarian objectives only adds to the butcher’s bill in Afghanistan, and we can no longer be excused by our good intentions.

And don’t think for a second that “fewer troops, more drones” is an answer in Afghanistan. Drones have an indiscriminate track record already in Pakistan, and their expansion in Afghanistan would violate any formulation of just war ethics, causing a massive increase in death and suffering caused by U.S. forces. If one accepts the proposition that our purpose in Afghanistan is primarily to reduce the threat of terrorism against the United States, one should carefully consider the following from P.W. Singer’s excellent book on military robotics, Wired for War:

[Mubashar Jawed “M.J.” Akbar concludes] that another unintentional effect must be watched out for. The greater use of unmanned systems, the more likely it will motivate terrorist strikes at America’s homeland. “It will be seen as a sign of American unwillingness to face death. Therefore, new ways to hit America will have to be devised…”(p. 312-313)

Singer also quotes Nir Rosen, who expects:

that the continuing trend will “encourage terrorism,” maybe especially among those not fighting that way now. As he explains…not every fighter is an al-Qaeda terrorist intent on attacking the United States. “the insurgents are defending their area and focusing on troops they see as occupiers. But if they can’t kill soldiers on the battlefield, they will have to do it somewhere else” He predicts that the more we take American soldiers off the battlefields [through robotics], the more it will “drive them to hit back home.” (p. 313)

None of the credible violent options in Afghanistan offer real chances for rolling back the insurgent reaction to our presence and to the corruption of the central government, nor do these options hold the potential for reducing terrorism against the United States. Because we lack a serious prospect for success via military force, we cannot justify its continued use. We should therefore make the only justifiable strategic and moral decision by grounding the drones and bringing our troops home, seeking instead humanitarian, political and diplomatic means to alleviate the inevitable suffering caused in part by our bad gamble in Afghanistan.


Embedded in General Stanley McChrystal’s classified assessment of the war in Afghanistan is his conclusion that a successful counterinsurgency strategy will require 500,000 troops over five years.

Any takers?

The United States should pursue strategies in Afghanistan that focus on reducing civilian deaths and enhancing stability.  However, a report today by Julian Barnes at the LA Times shows that the U.S. is shifting drones from hunting al-Qaida to attacking suspected Taliban in Afghanistan, a shift likely to cause more civilian deaths and further destabilization.

This actual policy of escalating drone strikes runs exactly counter to the “official policy” of reducing airstrikes and civilian casualties in Afghanistan under McChrystal’s much ballyhooed new orders. We know from experience in Pakistan that drone strikes kill far, far more civilians than they do suspected militants, and that drone operators in other branches of the U.S. government are firing their weapons even when they lack intelligence to back them up. Ratcheting up their use in Afghanistan will mean more dead civilians, and a higher ratio of civilian-to-militant death.

While the rationale offered for increasing drone attacks against the Taliban is to “prevent the country from slipping deeper into anarchy,” their use could very likely have the opposite effect. Again, as we’ve seen in Pakistan, rampant drone attacks were used against targets under the rationale of preventing the country from ‘falling into anarchy.’ However, their use helped contribute to one of the largest human migrations in recent history, actually pushing the country closer to anarchy. Drones will not help stabilize Afghanistan.

If the U.S. wants to reduce civilian casualties and enhance stability in Afghanistan, we should decrease, not increase, the number of drone-based airstrikes.

To their credit, the folks over at the Brookings Institution have become one of the first mainstream think tanks to recognize the horrendously indiscriminate nature of drone attacks in Pakistan. Brookings Institute scholar Daniel Byman wrote last Monday:

Critics correctly find many problems with this program, most of all the number of civilian casualties the strikes have incurred. Sourcing on civilian deaths is weak and the numbers are often exaggerated, but more than 600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks. That number suggests that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.

I’ve been citing numbers that show a worse civilian-combatant ratio (15-1), but the Brookings citation makes the same point: drones kill far more civilians than suspected militants. Good for Brookings for bringing this to folks’ attention.

Unfortunately, though, Byman fails to really get into the details of what causes the high ratio, preferring instead to attribute them to the Evil Taliban:

To reduce casualties, superb intelligence is necessary. Operators must know not only where the terrorists are, but also who is with them and who might be within the blast radius. This level of surveillance may often be lacking, and terrorists’ deliberate use of children and other civilians as shields make civilian deaths even more likely.

The preceding paragraph demonstrates an amazing Fareed-Zakaria-like ability to take the vile and the shocking and transform it into a passive-voice bromide. Translation: “We need good intel to avoid killing noncombatants. We don’t have good intelligence. We don’t let details like that get in the way of firing the weapons, so we kill 10 civilians for every one suspected terrorist. Oh yeah the Taliban are bad.”

Americans should be terrified and horrified that CIA operators use a weapons system whose ability to avoid killing innocent men, women and children depends on “superb intelligence” when such intel does not exist. Essentially, what the CIA is doing is analagous to a police sniper aiming into a bank crowded with hostages with a sniper rifle whose barrel lacks rifling, pointing at a suspected robber and pulling the trigger. When the bullet goes astray due to the lack of a key feature that makes the sniper rifle accurate–the rifling– and kills a hostage, the police officer shrugs. “The robber used human shields.” If the public found out that our hypothetical police sniper knew in advance that he had, oh, say, a 90-percent chance of killing a hostage rather than a robber and he pulled the trigger anyway, they’d be howling for his head on a platter. But this kind of vile nonsense is exactly what the administration asks the American people to accept through further escalations of the CIA’s undeclared war on the Pakistanis unlucky enough to be living near our national enemies.

I repeat:

The strikes have caused such carnage that leading British legal experts “said the aircraft could follow other weapons considered ’so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance’ in being consigned to the history books,” likening them to “cluster bombs and landmines.”

Byman’s analysis of the problem, though, ultimately misses the point. It may be true that the high civilian death rate is bad because it undermines our counterinsurgency efforts to win hearts and minds. However, the real problem is not the political consequences of these deaths, but rather the deaths themselves. Even if the 10-1 civilian-combatant death rate had zero political consequences, it would still be immoral to continue the use of drones. As I said on July 14,

“The worst effect of all this talk about counterinsurgency is that it has reduced the civilian populations of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan to mere means to the end of our strategy. They’re not. Drones may be awful in part because their use leads to more terrorism, but the worst effect of their use is the slaughter of people whose right to life exists independent from our goals for the region.”

Get those drones on the ground, now.

UPDATE: Despite its problems, the Brookings article shows that the CIA is lying to the American people about the drones.  Here’s Leon Panetta in a May 2009 speech:

“[Drone] operations have been very effective because they have been very precise in terms of the targeting and it involved a minimum of collateral damage.”

Very simply, Panetta lied.

UPDATE II: The Long War Journal just published an analysis of drone strike activity in 2009 compared to 2008 [h/t/ Noah Schactman at Danger Room]. Their study shows that compared to last year, drone strikes have been more frequent and have killed more people, with the total number of deaths for 2009 already exceeding the 2008 total :

…In 2009, the frequency of Predator strikes in Pakistan has continued to trend upwards. There have already been 31 Predator strikes in Pakistan this year (as of July 18) – nearly matching the total of 36 strikes for all of 2008.

If airstrikes continue at the current rate, the number of strikes in 2009 could more than double the dramatic increase in Predator activity seen in 2008.

Using low-end estimates of casualties (including Taliban, al Qaeda, and civilian) from US strikes inside Pakistan, we have determined that airstrikes resulted in 317 deaths during 2008. Already, the airstrikes in 2009 have surpassed that total, with 365 killed in 2009 as of July 18. [see Chart 2, Deaths]

…Another indicator of the increasing lethality of US airstrikes inside Pakistan is the rising average number killed per attack. So far in 2009, the average casualty rate has been 11.77 killed per strike, compared to 8.81 in 2008. [see Chart 3, Lethality]

So, to summarize:

  • CIA drone operators lack the “superb intel” needed to prevent civilian casualties, but are firing their weapons anyway, causing them to kill ten times as many civilians as suspected terrorists.
  • CIA Director Panetta, however, continues to lie and/or propagandize about the drones’ accuracy and “minimal collateral damage.”
  • Despite their indiscriminate and inhumane nature, the U.S. has doubled the rate of drone strikes and is killing more people per attack in 2009 compared to 2008, which has caused the death toll from these weapons so far in 2009 to exceed the death toll for all of 2008.

History will not be kind to us if we continue to use these indiscriminate weapons that kill ten times as many civilians as suspected combatants.

Christians–whether we are adherents of just war tradition or of Christian nonviolence–should not support U.S. policies that kill civilians indiscriminately. However, in the past six days, our government has intensified a policy that does exactly that.

The number of suspected U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have spiked dramatically since Friday, July 3, with four strikes having killed roughly 78 people. These weapons are notoriously indiscriminate: as of late May we used them to kill roughly 15 civilians for every one suspected militant.

All who consider themselves followers of Christ should demand that the U.S. immediately cease the use of drones in Pakistan, with which the U.S. government has killed hundreds of civilians in a nation with which we are not officially at war.

According to

So far there are no reports that any high profile militants have been killed in any of the strikes.

These drone strikes are outrageously dangerous for civilians for two reasons. First, the mechanical and physical distance involved makes it extremely easy psychologically for the drone operators to kill. From Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book, On Killing:

Artillery crews, bomber crews, naval gunners, and missile crews–at sea and on the ground–are all protected by the same powerful combination of group absolution, mechanical distance, and, most pertinent to our current discussion, physical distance.

In years of research and reading on the subject of killing in combat I have not found one single instance of individuals who have refused to kill the enemy under these circumstances, nor have I found a single instance of psychiatric trauma associated with this type of killing.

Second, because we lack human intelligence on the ground (or even people who can speak the language on the ground), we rely on paid informants equipped with small infrared homing beacons. These spotters basically get paid commission on each bomb that falls, which encourages them to plant homing beacons in as many places as possible–including in the homes of non-combatants.

Danger Room’s Adam Rawnsley:

The pictures of the “chips with 9 volt batteries”…bear a sharp resemblance to the Phoenix and Pegasus models of infrared flashing beacons made by Cejay Engineering. The devices are used by the U.S. military…The gadgets use LEDs, powered by a 9 volt battery, to emit beacons of infrared light that are visible only through night vision equipment. …They can weigh as little as a half-ounce, are as small as an inch-and-a-quarter, and have a battery life of nearly 100 hours…

American Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft are both equipped with infrared cameras, making such beacons a natural drone signaling mechanism. And because the devices are relatively simple and cheap — less sophisticated models can be purchased online for as little as $25 each — they can be handed out to informants, without fear of compromising clandestine, sophisticated American technology.

In April, 19 year-old Habibur Rehman made a videotaped “confession” of planting such devices, just before he was executed by the Taliban as an American spy. “I was given $122 to drop chips wrapped in cigarette paper at Al Qaeda and Taliban houses,” he said. If I was successful, I was told, I would be given thousands of dollars.”

But Rehman says he didn’t just tag jihadists with the devices. “The money was good so I started throwing the chips all over. I knew people were dying because of what I was doing, but I needed the money,” he added. Which raises the possibility that the unmanned aircraft…may have been lead to the wrong targets.

While news reports relay intelligence officials’ characterizations of those killed by this week’s strikes as “militants” in “strongholds” and “training camps,” we may never know for sure just who died in these blasts. According to AP:

Independent verification of the casualties and the target was not possible because the region is remote, dangerous and largely inaccessible to journalists. U.S. officials do not publicly comment on the strikes.

As of late May, drone strikes in Pakistan killed “780 civilians and about 50 alleged terrorists”. If the past civilian-to-suspected-militant ratio held true for these most recent strikes, the drones would have killed roughly five suspected militants and 73 civilians.

Ground the drones, now.

The New York Times again referenced the utility of drone strikes in Pakistan when they “avoid civilian casualties” while failing to mention that the overwhelming majority of people killed by U.S. drones in that country are civilians. Again, from a piece by Salman Masood with Pir Zubair Shah contributing:

Publicly, Pakistani officials have been critical of the drone strikes, calling them a breach of the country’s sovereignty. But privately, Pakistani officials acknowledge that the attacks are useful if they avoid civilian casualties and strike militants.

This is a copy-and-paste paragraph from yesterday’s story, which described a drone strike on a funeral in late June without mentioning that it killed 35 non-combatant local villagers, which included 10 children between the ages of 5 and 10 plus four local tribal elders.

Nowhere in this more recent story does Masood clarify that, copy-and-paste un-cited heresay notwithstanding, most people killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan are civilians: as of late May, drone strikes in Pakistan killed “780 civilians and about 50 alleged terrorists.”

I’ll repeat what I said yesterday: “news” stories that reference the utility of drone strikes that avoid civilian casualties–while failing to report that drones kill more than 15 civilians for every one suspected militant–are propaganda pieces. Times readers deserve better than this.

For more on the U.S. media’s inability to come to terms with the bloody costs of our country’s policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, see this excellent piece at TomDispatch.

The story in today’s New York Times by Salman Masood and Pir Zubair Shah on the latest drone strike in Pakistan whitewashes the killing of children and tribal elders in an earlier airstrike:

“The increased aerial strikes come as Pakistani military is gearing up for an ambitious offensive against Mr. Mehsud and his fighters, who number in the thousands. The mountainous region where they areentrenched is considered one of the most difficult terrains for conventional warfare.

“American drone strikes have recently focused on Mr. Mehsud, and he had a close call late last month when an aerial strike struck a village shortly after he had left a funeral.

“Publicly, Pakistani officials have been critical of the drone strikes, citing them as a breach of the country’s sovereignty. But privately, Pakistani officials acknowledge the utility of such attacks, especially when militants are targeted with few civilian casualties.”

This sloppy report’s characterization of the late-June drone strike on a funeral which targeted Meshud leaves out the fact that it killed 40 low-level militants, 35 local villagers, which included 10 children between the ages of 5 and 10 plus four local tribal elders. The omission is particularly glaring considering the next paragraph’s discussion of the attacks’ utility when they involve “few civilian casualties.”

The simple fact is that as of late May, drone strikes in Pakistan killed “780 civilians and about 50 alleged terrorists.”

Come on, New York Times. Get it together. Your readers need and expect news, not card-stacking propaganda.

UPDATE (7/7/09): Masood, Shah and the Times did it again today.

Recent actions by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and House Democratic leadership reveal that the rationale under which the party solicits funds–electing more Democrats and defeating Republican incumbents–has taken a back seat to a radical, pro-war agenda.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s latest ad shows that Democrats now seek to wrap themselves in the flag and stake out the “support the troops” high ground, jettisoning the contrary arguments they employed during the last several cycles, opting instead for “the prophesying of smooth patriotism” in ads targeting seven Republican congressmen. Here’s a sample:

Around here, we recognize Independence Day with parades … and picnics … maybe a few fireworks. But July Fourth is about more than that.

It’s about remembering those who fought for our freedoms. And those still fighting today.

Congressman Lee Terry used to understand that.

When George Bush asked, Congressman Terry voted to fully fund our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And, last year he said, quote, “We must give our military every resource it needs.”

Seems like Congressman Terry is playing politics now …

Last month Congressman Terry voted AGAINST funding for those same troops.

It’s true: vote No. 348 – you can look it up.

Worse, when it was pointed out that one of the targets of this ad, Rep. Joe Wilson, has four sons in the military, the DCCC decided to pour even more gas on the fire:

DCCC’s spox Ryan Rudominer hits back: “Congressman Wilson, of all people, should be supporting funding for our men and women in uniform.”

The preceding represents an escalation of pro-war rhetoric from the House Democrats which began in earnest during the war funding supplemental vote. During the lead-up to the vote, Democrats decided to play turnabout with the Republicans by adopting exactly the same rhetoric with which pro-war Republicans used to bludgeon Democrats. For example, here’s a recent quote from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

“The Republicans are saying they are not going to vote for the bill, the funding of the troops. They’re not going to support the troops.”

Here’s an unnamed Democratic staffer:

“Anytime there was a Democrat [who] raised concern on some of these supplementals, he was tarred as being anti-troop…It seems like they’re putting the interest of the Republican Party and the ability for them to develop a campaign narrative ahead of the interest of the troops,” he said.

But nothing unveils the fangs of the radical pro-war spirit spreading through the top echelons of the Democratic Party than the heavy hand with which they deal with their own anti-war members. Recall that before the vote in question, the White House and House leaders threatened to ostracize and de-fund vulnerable Democratic members unless they voted to fund the war:

The White House is playing hardball with Democrats who intend to vote against the supplemental war spending bill, threatening freshmen who oppose it that they won’t get help with reelection and will be cut off from the White House, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said Friday.

“We’re not going to help you. You’ll never hear from us again,” Woolsey said the White House is telling freshmen. She wouldn’t say who is issuing the threats, and the White House didn’t immediately return a call.

The combined political pressure of the House leadership and the White House Legislative Affairs Office was sufficient to cajole several Democrats who relied on anti-war backing to get elected and who had signed anti-war pledges (some of whom still have the temerity to maintain war-cost running totals on the front pages of their campaign websites) to stab their constituents in the back.  At the same time, the White House reportedly cut deals with pro-war Republicans to soft-peddle challenges to their reelection next year in exchange for war funding votes (h/t Jeremy Scahill).

The war funds vote and the ads cut in its aftermath reveal three alarming uses to which DCCC money is being put:

  1. Leverage to coerce vulnerable, anti-war Democrats into voting against their principles and those of their constituents;
  2. Threats against vulnerable, pro-war Republicans that can be withdrawn in exchange for support for war funds; and
  3. Political adverstisements that assail Republicans (even decidedly pro-war Republicans) with rhetoric that positions Democrats favorably (in their minds, at least) in a pro-troop/anti-troop binary.

Combined, these three uses indicate that funds solicited from donors on the premise that they will be used to elect more Democrats and defeat more Republican incumbents are actually being used to ensure the election and incumbency of House members who will vote to support war funding.

As a prior Democratic donor and highly active volunteer, I am absolutely disgusted. I know I’m not alone.

This revelation is particularly vile considering the context of the last few weeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the last two months, an airstrike in Afghanistan and a drone strike in Pakistan have killed very large numbers of civilians. The first, the May 4 bombing of Bala Baluk, was a “clear war crime” in that the civilians killed by a combined three-and-a-half tons of ordinance had not been confirmed as militants before they were bombed to death. The second, the June 23 drone attack on a funeral in South Waziristan, killed about 35 non-combatants, including 10 very young children, by dropping a bomb with a 200-ft. kill radius on their gathering. To date, no one has been punished for either atrocity, although both incidents blantantly violate the obligation of combatants to discriminate between parties to the conflict and civilians.  Instead, President Obama mastered doublespeak:

We simply want to make sure that our common enemies, which are extremists who would kill innocent civilians, that that kind of activity is stopped, and we believe that it has to be stopped whether it’s in the United States or in Pakistan or anywhere in the world.

This high-church dispensation of moral certainty parallels the one-way blame game we learned to endure during the Bush years: We are only defending ourselves; we’re the good guys, they’re the ones who kill innocent civilians; pay no attention to the one-ton bombs falling on your friends and families. At home, you either support any appropriations bill that contains continued, no-strings funding for continued hostilities or you hate the troops and want them to be killed by terrorists.

In the name of stopping the activities of extremists, we’re expanding our own civilian-killing extremist version of the self-defense doctrine, which has become so mutant that it now justifies dropping quarter-ton bombs with a 200-foot kill radius on groups of people likely to include civilians in countries with which we are not officially at war. Obama’s January 23 order to initiate a Predator strike in Pakistan signaled his backing for this Terminator-esque turn in American policy, the first piece of a multi-front escalation of military force in Afghanistan and Pakistan, now conflated, terrifyingly, as “AfPak.” Incredibly, despite five policy reviews in six months, the President who ran on a platform of finishing the fight in Afghanistan presides over a military campaign now wandering into neighboring countries, adrift in the exhibition of qualities for which he once decried the policies of President Bush: “undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.”

At moments like this, we desperately need a Congress and a congressional leadership team with the spine to check the listlessness and violence of the executive’s actions overseas. The actions of House leadership and their political campaign operation down the street have revealed that we have no such thing. Rather, what the war funding vote and its aftermath revealed is the further infiltration and dominance of the official structures the Democratic Party by a radical pro-war caucus, perfectly willing to sell out their constituents and their donors in the name of out-of-control militarism and continued, highly profitable mass murder overseas. This radical caucus running the party in the House flexed its muscles just this past week, teaming with Republicans to defeat legislative language to require an exit strategy from Afghanistan, despite the fact that the majority of rank-and-file Democrats supported it and despite its similarity to the exit strategy for which Democrats agitated for Iraq under President Bush. Until we force changes, expect more of the same on future votes.

I encourage every anti-war DCCC donor to close your checkbooks and put your debit cards away until we see a party worth another penny. Right now, the Democratic party isn’t. In fact, I’d like my money back.