by Ralf Büsser. Ralf grew up in Appenzell, Switzerland. He studies International Relations at the University of St. Gallen with Focus on Security Policy. While Ralf was in Washington DC for six months, he could gain further insights into the U.S. security policy and the U.S. drone war. His book, “Die Folgen des US-Drohnenkrieges in Pakistan auf den War on Terror” is currently only in German available. But this article should not only advertise his book, but also offer another look in the U.S. Drone War in Pakistan (for a critical assessment about targeted killings see “Internationale Jagdsaison: gezielte Tötungen und das Völkerrecht”, offiziere.ch, August/September 2012 – Part 1 & Part 2 [only in German]).
The featured thesis addresses the consequences of the targeted killings in Pakistan through unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) of the United States. Thereby the crucial question is, whether the drone war is positive or negative for the global war on terrorism: Are the drone strikes effective or do they lead to more hatred against the U.S. and thus create more extremism and terrorism in the long-run? To answer these questions, the thesis first addresses the ethnic, societal and political situation in the Afghan-Pakistani borderland. Subsequently to this analysis, diplomatic, economical, military and societal developments in the affected areas get examined. These different indicators show that the drone war does derogate heavily the functionality of fundamentalist organizations. Indeed, the resentments in Pakistan against the USA grow – but also vis-à-vis the extremists. There is no ascending extremism and terror organizations have difficulties in gaining new blood.
This post concentrates on four of the most striking findings of the book.
Drone strikes are not cheap
Even opponents of the drones repeatedly admit that drone strikes have one big, touted, advantage: They are cheap (e.g. Peace News (2010)). A lot of people thus mistakenly conclude that drones are increasingly used only because of their cost aspect. However this is a mistaken belief. The facts show that drones continue to be used because, although they are more expensive than other systems, they are more cost-effective. In contrast to alternatives to UCAV like special operations forces (SOF) or ground-attack aircraft, a drone operation depends on further systems: A ground control station, communication channels, and logistic infrastructure. As a result approximately 180 people are necessary for one MQ-9 Reaper drone mission. For other drone types like the RQ-4 Global Hawk this number can even increase to more than 300. The acquisition, infrastructure, maintenance and personnel costs of a unit (four) Reapers are $120.8 million and thus much higher than the $27.2 million of a unit F-16C ground-combat capable fighter jet. Also the incremental yearly cost of a Reaper drone at $20.4 million is much more expensive than the $4.8 million of an F-16C. Due to the very high number of flying hours of a drone, the latter only beats the costs of an F-16C when compared with the costs per flying hour: $3,624 for the Reaper, $20,809 for the fighter yet. (Sources: Geer & Bolkcom for Congress (2005); Wheeler (2012); Rötzer (2012))
Of course it is very difficult and not completely correct to compare the costs and abilities of these different weapons systems. Even the Congressional Research Service had difficulties in its attempt to make a reasonable comparison of the real drone costs with other systems. Different weapon systems have specific special abilities and complement instead of antagonize each other. A UCAV does expand operational effectiveness because it can wait and observe hours before attacking, while a ground-combat aircraft has a more limited block time and thus restricts the time frame of an operation. An F-16C in turn is able to conduct a bigger variety of missions than a Reaper drone. SOF on the other hand are able to capture instead of killing or destroying high value targets and thus may gather potentially important information for the intelligence services on-site. These facts thus just emphasize that UCAVs are not in use just because they are cheap. They are very expensive and thus their engagement must be worth it. Also Congress has realized this conclusion as it worries about the rising costs.
The drone war in Pakistan does not severely strain U.S.-Pakistani Relations
A very common and popular argument is that the drone war in Pakistan is responsible for the worsening of U.S.-Pakistani relations. The ongoing tensions between the two countries are indeed obvious. Pakistan blocked NATO supplies for Afghanistan for seven months and ordered a drone base to close in November 2011. Earlier in 2011, the U.S. was forced by the Pakistani Government to decrease the number of special operations forces. For years Pakistani officials liked to ignite the popular anti-U.S. and anti-drone sentiments with abrasive tirades. President Barack Obama himself seems to be disappointed in the development of the relationship with Pakistan as he lowered his administration’s expectations of the collaboration with the country in late 2010. Meanwhile the Pakistani government has strengthened its liaison with China.
These incidents called up resentments in the Pakistani people and government. In addition through 2011 three much more severe incidents occurred. Each of these severely worsened U.S.-Pakistani relations. At the beginning of the year turmoil was caused by a CIA mission that resulted in three deaths in Islamabad. In May, operation “Neptune’s Spear” killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. The unnoticed surgical intervention of U.S. special operations forces and the fact that bin Laden has either lived undetected or with the knowledge of some civilian and military officials, was embarrassing for the Pakistani government, military, and the ISI, severe diplomatic tensions resulted. In a third incident the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers at the Afghan-Pakistani border by ISAF troops in November of 2011 was the last straw and led to the shutdown of the drone base and the blocking of the supply routes.Not even the most appalling drone strike is known to have bred even roughly the same tensions. Reactions to drone attacks with civilian casualties remained limited to relatively weak verbal protests. These protests of Pakistani officials are not really directed against the U.S. but follow from a domestic necessity. As the UCAVs are not popular with the population, the politicians have to play rhetorically along with public opinion. In reality the Pakistani government is glad about the drone strikes. This implicit agreement of allowing drone strikes, but publicly condemning them came along at the very highest level many years ago between President Pervez Musharraf and President George W. Bush, but also the words of the current Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari indicate the same grant as he said: “I don’t care if they [the Americans] do it [the drone strikes] as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.”
It’s an easy way for the Pakistani government to get rid of undesirable extremists without the fear of dirtying their hands. The following statement of Zardari confirms this: “Kill the seniors. Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.“
The drone war does clearly weaken the terrorists’ clout
At least partly, besides other counterterrorism measures, the targeted killing of top terrorists has contributed to the absence of big and spectacular terrorist attacks in the West since the drone war in Pakistan has been expanded. Contrary to the prevalent public opinion, the supply of skilled terrorists is very limited. Not every terrorist leader is smart enough to organize and coordinate complex terrorist operations. Further, besides the mastermind of such attacks, other functions in a terrorist network, like the persons responsible for relations with other groups, for logistics, for bomb-building or for tactics demand reliable, well-connected, experienced and charismatic specialists. (See Würz (2012) and Byman (2006))
All these factors result in the conclusion that, as the targeted killings under Obama eliminated one high value target (HVT) after another, the terrorists’ ability to execute effective operations must have decreased and the recruitment of new extremists must have become more difficult. Empirical studies about the effectiveness of targeted killings of HVTs of Hamas by the Israeli air force support this theory. With regard to the terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, besides the absence of spectacular terrorist attacks in the West since 2005, the effectiveness of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan has also declined. The numbers in Afghanistan show that the lethality (deaths/attack) of terrorist attacks has decreased from 1.74 in 2007 (before the drone war was expanded) to 1.20 in 2011. The lethality in the FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has decreased even further from 3.08 in 2007 to 1.21 in 2011. (Data from multiple reliable sources. Calculations on my own. Not all sources can be stated here; the biggest sources are the WITS of the NCTC and several PAK Security Reports).
These facts are strongly in favor of the use of drones. They crucially limit the effectiveness of terrorist organizations. However, you may object, this is no long-term advantage at all as the extremism gets a boost thanks to the imprecise drone attacks and thus the overall number of terrorists grows and number of attacks rises. But do they really?
Drone strikes do not promote terrorists’ credit in the local population and do not result in increased extremism
A lot of critics of the combat drone program claim that despite the short-term success of the drones, the real danger and disadvantage lies in the long-term backlash. As more and more people become furious about the civilian casualties of the drone strikes, the basis for terrorist organizations rises. Thus, over the years, terrorist organizations are more strongly rooted in the local population than ever and can draw from a bigger pool of supporters and fighters.
The extremist organizations were not able to build a bigger foundation for their fight. The number of Pakistani Taliban fighters was expected to be at 20,000 in 2009 and 2010 – less then half the number of fighters in the years 2002-2008. Al Qaeda’s number of fighters was at an estimated 50-80 in 2011 – down from over 2,000 before 2008. (Data from Mullick (2010) and Livingston & O’Hanlon (2012))
Of course the number of extremists is still high and there is no reason to cheer. Further, the number may be lower without the targeted killings, but it may also be higher. Extremist organizations often rely on leaders with impressive charisma to recruit new combatants. Once eliminated by a drone, an important modality to convert modest young people to jihad is no longer available. In rebuttal, several polls in Pakistan clearly show a decrease of favorable and increase of unfavorable opinions about the USA since 2007. However, like the politics these polls reflect reactions of the Pakistani people to the ground raids, and not the targeted killings. As the number of drone strikes (about 112) was on an all-time-high in 2010, also the favorable opinion about the USA rose from 13 % in 2009 to 18% in mid 2010. It decreased severely to 12 % in mid-2011 which persisted until now. But we should keep in mind that the number of drone strikes in this year also decreased (to about 53) and thus the border-skirmish in late 2010 and especially the bin Laden raid were mainly responsible for this decline.
A number of different and independent polls in the FATA have shown that the local population even largely supports drone strikes. The strikes are regarded as accurate, effective, preferred compared to Pakistani military operations, and as liberators from Islamist militants. It thus is obvious that the general public opinion outside the affected areas has a contrary, media-guided perception of what is going on in the FATA.
Besides that, a bad image does not automatically lead to more extremism. The U.S. has similar low or even worse levels of sympathizers in other countries. Above all it’s legitimate and also reasonable for a people to have a bad picture of a country which follows a policy that disrespects national sovereignty and even kills citizens. It doesn’t matter how good the intentions of the intervention may be. Thus we have to catch a glimpse of other indicators to determine whether the drone war does booster extremism or not. We can find these indicators in the support for extremist organizations and suicide bombings. In 2004 over 40 % of the Pakistani Muslims supported suicide bombing. However this support decreased heavily in the following years and was at an all-time low of 5 % in 2011. This clearly shows that the targeted killings, even though clearly not favored in the population, did not ignite extremist views. Of all the countries where these polls took place, Pakistan provided the lowest value in this regard. Even Turkey and Indonesia were higher, with 7 % and 10 % support respectively. (All poll data from PEW)
Looking at the facts makes it clearly reasonable why President Obama has dramatically increased drone operations in Pakistan and other countries since his inauguration. However, it is not the cost aspect. Drone strikes are highly accurate and effective. The terrorists are no longer able to move around freely in so-called “safe havens” which has a big impact on their ability to organize and conduct complex attacks. The locally affected civilian population is often even in favor of the strikes. The low support for the drones in the overall Pakistani population is explainable through the nature of the business as most citizens of a country do not welcome foreign military intervention at all. Finally, tensions in the diplomatic relationship between the USA and Pakistan can be clearly attributed to non-drone incidences.
Ralf Büsser (2012): Die Folgen des US-Drohnenkrieges in Pakistan auf den War on Terror, AV Akademikerverlag, 112 pages, only in German.
Think Tanks listing drone attacks in Pakistan:
2011: The Year of the Drone. New America Foundation [NAF].
Drone Attacks. Pakistan Body Count [PBC].
Drone attack in Pakistan: 2005-2012. South Asia Terrorism Portal [SATP].
Drone Strikes per Year. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism [BIJ].
Mayer, Alexander & Roggio, Bill (2012). “Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004-2012.” The Long War Journal [LWJ].
Articles and books related to the U.S. drone War in Pakistan:
Fair, Christine (2010). “Drone Wars: The Obama administration won’t tell the truth about America’s new favourite weapon – but that doesn’t mean its critics are right.” Foreign Policy, 28.03.2010.
Sageman, Marc (2008). Leaderless Jihad. Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century. Philadelphia: Penn Press.
Shah, Pir Zubair (2012). “My Drone War. American drones have changed everything for al Qaeda and its local allies in Pakistan, becoming a fact of life in a secret war that is far from over.” Foreign Policy, März/April.
“Unmanned aerial warfare. Flight of the drones. Why the future of air power belongs to unmanned systems.” The Economist, 08.10.2011.