(David Rohde is a Reuters columnist. Any opinions expressed are his own.)
By David Rohde
Jan 17 (Reuters) - They kill without warning, are comparatively cheap, risk
no American lives, and produce triumphant headlines. Over the last three
years, drone strikes have quietly become the Obama administration's weapon
of choice against terrorists.
Since taking office, President Barack Obama has unleashed five times as many
drone strikes as George W. Bush authorized in his second term in the White
House. He has transformed drone attacks from a rarely used tactic that
killed dozens each year to a twice-weekly onslaught that killed more than
1,000 people in Pakistan in 2010. Last year, American drone strikes spread
to Somalia and Libya as well.
In the wake of the troubled, trillion-dollar American invasions of Iraq and
Afghanistan, drone strikes are a talisman in Washington. To cash-strapped
officials, drones eliminate the United States' enemies at little human,
political, or financial cost.
The sweeping use of drone strikes in Pakistan, though, has created
unprecedented anti-American sentiment in that country. While U.S.
intelligence officials claim that only a handful of civilians have died in
drone attacks, the vast majority of Pakistanis believe thousands have
perished. Last year, the Pakistani government apparently blocked American
drone strikes after tensions escalated between the two governments.
After a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in January and American
commandos killed Osama bin Laden in March, there were no drone strikes there
for weeks at a time. In November, drone strikes stopped again after an
American airstrike killed 26 Pakistani soldiers near the border with
Afghanistan. As of late December, there had been no strikes in Pakistan for
six weeks, the longest pause since 2008, and a glaring example of the
limitations of drone warfare.
My perspective on drones is an unusual one. In November 2008, the Afghan
Taliban kidnapped two Afghan colleagues and me outside Kabul and ferried us
to the tribal areas of Pakistan. For the next seven months, we were held
captive in North and South Waziristan, the focus of the vast majority of
American drone strikes during that period. In June 2009, we escaped. Several
months later, I wrote about the experience in a series of articles for the
New York Times, my employer at the time.
Throughout our captivity, American drones were a frequent presence in the
skies above North and South Waziristan. Unmanned, propeller-driven aircraft,
they sounded like a small plane - a Piper Cub or Cessna-circling overhead.
Dark specks in a blue sky, they could be spotted and tracked with the naked
eye. Our guards studied their flight patterns for indications of when they
might strike. When two drones appeared overhead they thought an attack was
imminent. Sometimes it was, sometimes it was not.
The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine
who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant
propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death. Drones fire missiles
that travel faster than the speed of sound. A drone's victim never hears the
missile that kills him.
Our Afghan and Pakistani Taliban guards despised the drones and disparaged
them as a cowardly way for America to wage war. The 2009 surge in drone
attacks in Pakistan prompted our guards to hate Obama even more than they
The most difficult day of our captivity was March 25, 2009. Late that
afternoon, a drone attack occurred just outside our house in Makeen, South
Waziristan. Missiles fired by an American drone had struck dozens of yards
away. After chunks of mud and bits of shrapnel landed in our courtyard. Our
guards hustled me down a hillside and ordered me to get inside a station
wagon. They told me to lie down, place a scarf over my face, and say
nothing. We all knew that if local militants enraged by the attack learned
an American prisoner was in the area, I would be killed. As I lay in the
car, I heard militants shout with fury as they collected their dead. A woman
wailed somewhere in the distance. I silently recited the Lord's Prayer.
After 15 minutes, the guards took me back to our house and explained what
had happened. Missiles from American drones had struck two cars, they said,
killing seven Arab militants and local Taliban fighters. Later, I learned
that one of our guards suggested I be taken to the site of the attack and
ritually beheaded. The chief guard overruled him.
The strikes fueled a vicious paranoia among the Taliban. For months, our
guards told us of civilians being rounded up, accused of working as American
spies and hung in local markets. Immediately after that attack in South
Waziristan, a feverish hunt began for a local spy who the Taliban were
convinced had somehow secretly guided the Americans to the two cars.
Several days after the strike, our guards told us foreign militants had
arrested a local man and accused him of guiding the drones. After the
jihadists disemboweled the villager and chopped off his leg, he "confessed"
to being an American spy, they said. Then the militants decapitated the man
and hung his corpse in the local bazaar as a warning.
My time in captivity filled me with enormous sympathy for the Pakistani
civilians trapped between the deranged Taliban and ruthless American
technology. They inhabit a hell on earth in the tribal areas. Both sides
abuse them. I am convinced Taliban claims that only civilians die in drone
strikes are false, as are American claims that only militants do. Drone
strikes are not a silver bullet against militancy, nor are they a wanton
practice that fells only civilians. They weaken militant groups without
During my time in the tribal areas, it was clear that drone strikes
disrupted militant operations. Taliban commanders frequently changed
vehicles and moved with few bodyguards to mask their identities. Afghan,
Pakistani, and foreign Taliban avoided gathering in large numbers. The
training of suicide bombers and roadside bomb makers was carried out in
small groups to avoid detection.
Altogether, 22 drone strikes killed at least 76 militants and 41 civilians
in North and South Waziristan during our seven months in captivity,
according to news reports. Some strikes clearly succeeded. Our guards
reacted with fury, for example, when Uzbek bomb makers they knew were killed
in a drone strike. They also showed my Afghan colleagues the graves of
children they said died in strikes.
It is impossible for journalists, human rights groups, or outside
investigators to definitively determine the ratio of civilians to militants
killed by American drones. The United States refuses to release details or
publicly acknowledge the attacks, which they insist are classified.
Militants, meanwhile, refuse to allow unfettered access to the area.
The strikes kill senior leaders and weaken Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban,
and the Afghan Taliban, but militants use exaggerated reports of civilian
deaths to recruit volunteers and stoke anti-Americanism. I believe the
drones create a stalemate between militant groups and U.S. intelligence
While drones are seen as a triumph of American technology in the United
States, they provoke intense public anger in Pakistan. Exaggerated Taliban
claims of civilian deaths are widely believed by the Pakistanis, who see the
strikes as a flagrant violation of the United States' purported support for
human rights. Analysts believe that killing a senior militant in a drone
strike is a tactical victory but a loss over the long term because it
weakens public support for an American-backed crackdown on militancy in
Pakistan, which many analysts think is essential.
"In the short term, it puts (the militants) on the back foot," a former
United Nations official in the region who spoke on condition of anonymity
told me. "In the overall community, it's devastating."
Worsening the problem, the U.S. has allowed the Pakistani military to
falsely claim that it has no control over the drone strikes. American drones
operate out of Pakistani air force bases with the permission of Pakistani
forces, yet the Pakistani public is told that a foreign power is carrying
out unilateral attacks inside their country and violating their sovereignty.
Pakistan is not the only country experiencing drone attacks. Since 2001, the
United States has carried out drone strikes in five other countries -
Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Somalia. In Libya, the American military
carried out 146 drone strikes during NATO's seven-month bombing campaign
against the Gaddafi regime. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the CIA and the
American military do not disclose the number of attacks, but a senior
American military official put the number at "dozens" since 2001.
The most alarming pattern has emerged in Yemen and Somalia. The exact number
of strikes in both countries is unknown. Local media in Yemen report strikes
as often as once a week, but American officials decline to confirm that.
On September 30, 2011, a drone flying over Yemen set a new precedent.
Without a trial or any public court proceeding, the United States government
killed two American citizens, Anwar Al Awlaki and Samir Khan. The target of
the attack was Awlaki, a New Mexico-born Yemeni-American whose charismatic
preaching inspired terrorist attacks around the world, including the 2009
killing of 13 soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas. Civil liberties groups argued
that a dangerous new threshold had been crossed. For the first time in
American history, the United States had executed two of its citizens without
The Obama Administration cited a secret Justice Department memorandum as
justification for the attack. Its authors contended that Awlaki's killing
was legal due to his role in attacks on the United States and his presence
in an area where American forces could not easily capture him. The
administration declined to publicly release the full document.
Many experts insist a new approach to drones is desperately needed. Strikes
should continue, they say, but in a vastly different manner. Among the
changes they suggest: The U.S. must end its absurd practice of refusing to
publicly acknowledge attacks. Many analysts also believe Washington should
accede to longstanding demands from the Pakistani, Afghan, and other local
governments for more control over the use of drones. Their reasoning is
simple: Along with the United States, local officials will then bear the
burden of building local public support for drone strikes.
"They have asked for sharing the responsibility, but also means sharing the
technology," Vali Nasr, a Tufts University professor and former senior Obama
Administration adviser on Pakistan, told me. "We have resisted that, but the
benefit is that you give the local government ownership."
For all their shortcomings, drones do present a tempting though far from
perfect martial option. Drones can reach jihadists in remote mountains and
deserts inaccessible to American and local troops. They have taken out top
militants, such as the Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who was
responsible for the killing of thousands of Pakistani civilians in suicide
bombings. And they have slowed the training of suicide bombers and roadside
bomb makers, most of whose victims are innocent Afghan and Pakistani
bystanders, not American troops.
But drones alone are not the answer. Over the long term, it will be moderate
Muslims who defeat militancy, not technology.
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
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Received on Wed Jan 18 2012 - 10:09:52 EST