Former members of the military oppose drone strikes

 In Afghanistan, Pakistan

As attacks on the Taliban in Pakistan increase, the number of civilian refugees fleeing the fighting has reached 1.3 million. The growing humanitarian crisis has forced parents to leave their children in their effort for survival. As hundreds of thousands of new refugees abandon their homes, often without food or blankets, civilian relief groups are rushing to erect tent cities to accommodate them. One official from the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has already expressed the concern that the efforts are “not enough” to deal with the growing tide.

Amidst the fighting, US drone attacks are of particular concern. Drone strikes meant to target terrorists and militants operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan often lead to civilian deaths, and outrage over these unmanned attacks has been growing. Reports from the ground have been increasingly difficult to obtain, as the New York Times is reporting that journalists and outsiders have been banned from many of the areas where fighting is occurring. However, two prominent former military members are speaking out about the dangers of drone strikes. In a New York Times Op-Ed entitled “Death from Above, Outrage Down Below,” David Kilcullen, the 2006-2008  counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, and Andrew McDonald Exum, a 2002-2004 Army officer who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and a current fellow at the Center for a New American Security, outline 3 reasons why the US should cease using this ultimately counterproductive tactic.

They argue, “First, the drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians.” Public outrage over accidental civilian deaths is often directed at the American military that initiated the attack rather than at the extremists for whom the bombs were originally meant. Kilcullen and Exum explain,

While violent extremists may be unpopular, for a frightened population they seem less ominous than a faceless enemy that wages war from afar and often kills more civilians than militants.

Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent — hardly “precision.” American officials vehemently dispute these figures, and it is likely that more militants and fewer civilians have been killed than is reported by the press in Pakistan. Nevertheless, every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.

The sentiment Kilcullen and Exum describe was apparent after the American airstrikes in Bala Baluk, Afghanistan earlier this month. That attack may have resulted in over 100 civilian deaths. According to the LA Times,

Echoing sentiments that would be expressed in the following days by many other villagers, [Saeed] Barakat aimed his bafflement and fury squarely at the U.S. military.

“We blame America,” he said. “With all their technology, they don’t determine who is a fighter and who is an innocent. Now my house is gone. My wife is dead. My children are burned.”

For Americans, the loss of Pakistani and Afghan life is often abstracted into numbers, becoming faceless and difficult to grasp. For those that experience its effects firsthand, it is not surprising that it generates anger and distrust. Unfortunately, Kilcullen and Exum also argue:

Second, public outrage at the strikes is hardly limited to the region in which they take place — areas of northwestern Pakistan where ethnic Pashtuns predominate. Rather, 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.

The combination of drone strikes and misinformation in Pakistan undermines the legitimacy of the Pakistani government and threatens the security of the Pakistani and the American people. In contrast, the cessation of drone strikes, improved communications between the US and the Afghan and Pakistani populations, and greater support for the civilian government of Pakistan by Pakistanis would make all parties involved safer.

Kilcullen and Exum’s final critique goes to the heart of misguided policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They continue:

Third, the use of drones displays every characteristic of a tactic — or, more accurately, a piece of technology — substituting for a strategy. These attacks are now being carried out without a concerted information campaign directed at the Pakistani public or a real effort to understand the tribal dynamics of the local population, efforts that might make such attacks more effective.

President Obama has repeatedly stated that military efforts alone will not be sufficient to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unfortunately, drone efforts seem to mask the primary problem in the region: the absence of effective instruments of civilian aid, outreach and infrastructure building. In forums held by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, an 80:20 ratio between civilian and military tools in the region was advocated, in contrast to the rough ratio of 10:90 in the House version of the supplemental last week or the approximate ratio of 5:94 which has persisted since fighting began in 2001.

Kilcullen and Exum recognize that stopping drone strikes won’t remedy the situation in Pakistan overnight, but they rightly assert that it’s a move in the right direction. They conclude,

To be sure, simply ending the drone strikes is no more a strategy than continuing them. Stabilizing Pakistan will require a focus on securing areas, principally in Punjab and Sindh, that are still under government control, while building up police and civil authorities and refocusing aid on economic development, security and governance. Suspending drone strikes won’t fix Pakistan’s problems — but continuing them makes these problems much harder to address.

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  • Thomas Markey

    The Afghanistan that Lindsey Graham, Joseph Liberman, John McCain and seemingly countless other politicians have been visiting at taxpayer expense recently might as well be on Mars, so different is it, apparently, from the Afghanistan that Jean-Claude Muller, special councilor for international cultural matters to Luxemburg’s prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, and I visited just this past month.

    As professional linguists, we were doing linguistic field work in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor (we are researching a book provisionally entitled “The Tongues of the Taliban: How They Get Their Intelligence”). We funded the expenditure ourselves, and as linguistic researchers have no particular political axes to grind.

    The Wakhan Corridor is that strange-looking panhandle in far northeastern Afghanistan that is strategically sandwiched between Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan’s awesomely snow-bound Hindu Kush to the south and that also abuts briefly and precariously on China. It is a DMZ creation of the 19th century Great Game that was viciously played out between Imperial Russia and the British Empire. It is an arbitrary creation and therefore geographically reflects the roots of many of modern Afghanistan’s current ills.

    We entered Afghanistan from Tajikistan by walking unescorted across the no-man’s land at the Oxus River border station at Eshkashem. We were dressed as civilians and carried our own packs: no vehicles, no flak jackets, no body guards, just plain folks. We were, however, accompanied by our impressive guide and translator, whom we shall simply call Mr. T., a Tajik native of Khorug and a speaker of Tajik and Russian (he spent four years studying film at the academy in Moscow and, like all other Tajiks in his age group, served in the Russian army), as well as Dard; but his native language is Shugni, which is also widely spoken across the Oxus from Khorug in Afghanistan, as is Tajik: there are as many Tajiks (four and a half million) in Afghanistan as in Tajikistan. Then, too, Mr. T. had spent eleven years in Afghanistan working for Focus.

    We were following the same route through the corridor that Marco Polo took just over seven centuries ago. We stayed with locals (so-called ‘homestays’); sometimes with major landholders, once with a highly respected local “pasha” and once in a hostel supported by the Aga Khan Foundation, but also often enough with people of very, very modest circumstances (the country’s per capita GDP is currently about $60.00). In every situation, the boundless hospitality and cordiality were overwhelming. Just as you initially begin to think the US ought to have left this godforsaken place yesterday, it’s finally the people that bind your heartstrings to it.

    Clearly, we had all the advantages over “official” visitors pointed out by Joseph Kearns Goodwin in his “Afghanistan’s Other Front” (The New York Times, Op-Ed, Wednesday, September 16th) and then some: not only could we move about freely as civilians in an ordinary van with an Afghan driver and thus be far less “likely to intimidate and more likely to elicit candor” than highly marked official visitors, the very advantages Goodwin stresses, but we also had one-on-one conversational access and abilities, something our military and politicians have woefully lacked for decades.

    The Wakhan Corridor is a heady ethnic and linguistic mix coupled with profound religious differences: Ismailis fervently loyal to the Aga Khan, the 49th imam, who saved them from certain starvation during the civil war in Tajikistan; Shiites; covert Buddhists; remnants of pre-Islamic paganism reminiscent of that in Ladakh and Nepal; and even vestiges of Zoroastrianism. And this corridor is what all of Afghanistan might have been and might still hope to be: safe and pleasant, even if initially dirt poor, with no evidence of a Taliban or El Qaeda and devoid of the corruption and rampant system of bribes that plagues the rest of the country. Then, too, we saw no poppies in the Wakhan Corridor, and we walked many fields.

    Despite such diversity in the Wakhan Corridor, there was a unanimous belief that the Afghan government is simply an outrageous band of crooks on the take and that Hamid Karzai is chief among them. This disgust cut across all linguistic, age and belief groups. It was barely below the surface of any discussion, as was the question of when the “foreigners” would leave. There was no blaming the Russians, nor even our guide, Mr. T., who, as a Tajik, was clearly from the “wrong” side when talk turned to the Soviet era. The wreckage of that period is plain to see: discarded tank turrets decorate many of Eshkashem’s street corners. Most significantly, while there was a firm awareness of local pride of place, there was no patriotic fervor for an Afghanistan, seemingly a very alien concept for many.

    The answer to the the questions of what to do about the rampant corruption on the one hand and the Taliban / El Qaeda on the other hand that plague Afghanistan … and the answer to these questions is clearly not more boots on the ground (just ask the Russians about that one … with an estimated cost of some 82 billion dollars and the loss of their empire; though you can’t very well ask the 16,500 British troops slaughtered at the Khyber pass in just one engagement in 1842, and the Brits didn’t get the message until the disastrous Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919) or elaborate training programs (Anti-bribing 101?) or monitoring all those police checkpoints where palms are greased, lies within the Wakhan Corridor itself and just across the Oxus River in Tajikistan’s Autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan Region, still known by its Soviet abbreviation GBAO.

    The GBAO is just as culturally and linguistically heterogeneous as the Wakhan Corridor, if not more so. But once you leave the bribe-free GBAO, for which a separate visa is required in addition to that for entering Tajikistan, the police checkpoints and corruption start all over again: drivers from the GBAO are routinely racially profiled by Dushanbe’s traffic cops and required to hand over bribes. Once I convinced our Kyrgyz driver to trade his skull cap for my baseball cap, we started being waved past Dushanbe’s checkpoints.

    In the end, it was Tajikistan’s disastrous civil war that raged for five years from 1992 until 1997 and that claimed more than 60,000 lives and uprooted more than a million refugees that left the GBAO independent, proud, united and with a clear and collective vision for a future, a vision that finally sees prosperity within its grasp from increased tourism and from providing a trade corridor for neighboring China; the Pamirs are set to become the hub of a new Silk Road, and, get this, it is the Chinese who are building the road system (lamentably with their prisoners, of which they have millions, who receive only food and lodging for their efforts).

    For us as a nation, it should be abundantly clear that once people gain their independence and couple that independence with a sense of collective purpose and goals, then peace and (bribeless) prosperity usually follow.

    Afghanistan per se is a fictitious socio-political unit that, by and large, was engendered in the wake of the 19th century’s Great Game; any resemblance to Iraq is real. As we see it, given the successes of the Wakhan Corridor and the GBAO, an effective solution to current woes would be to convert Afghanistan into a federation of largely autonomous “cantons” divided along ethno-linguistic lines (and even those of religious persuasion) and then encourage cross-border communication and cooperation between and among related groups; so, for example, between Tajiks on both sides of the Oxus River divide, between Belochis on both sides of the Afghan-Iran border, and so on.

    We should also look for creative and novel non-military solutions such as replacing poppy cultivation with saffron cultivation (virtually economically equivalent crops), encouraging local handicraft co-operatives, whether operated by women or not (as has been successfully done in the GBAO), building rural schools along the lines of Greg Mortenson, engaging a variety of non-military players such as His Highness the Aga Khan in socio-political decision making, and so on. And we should largely absent ourselves to let Afghan diversity flourish once again. Going blindly down the same paths of militant aggression as did the Russians and British will surely once again end in ever greater disasters, even more so when we have so clearly failed at cultural understanding and linguistic communication.


    Dr. Thomas L. Markey, Tucson, Arizona (2466 North Camino Valle Verde), 85715
    Dr. Jean-Claude Muller, Institut archéologique du Luxembourg

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