Bush's man-hunting machines—and Obama's.

Science, technology, and life.
Oct. 27 2008 7:50 AM

The Robot Proxy War

Bush's man-hunting machines—and Obama's.

In less than three months, Barack Obama will be president of the United States. How will he change our border war in Pakistan? Not much. We'll keep fighting insurgents there the way we're fighting them today: with aerial killing machines.

Last year, Obama declared that under his presidency, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." John McCain criticized Obama's policy as rash, suggesting it would undermine the Pakistani government. The United States should try covert action in Pakistan "before we declare that we're going to bomb the daylights out of them," said McCain. A month ago, in their first debate, McCain again condemned Obama's position, arguing that the next president should "work with the Pakistani government," not "attack them."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Today, the New York Times reports what's actually going on along the Pakistani border. The report, based on interviews with U.S. and Pakistani officials, exposes the Obama-McCain debate as a charade. We're already getting actionable intelligence about terrorist targets in Pakistan. We're already blasting them. And the Pakistani government is working with us to facilitate these attacks. The covert action, the cooperation, and the aerial assaults aren't competing options. They're the same thing.

Here's the crux of the Times story:

The White House has backed away from using American commandos for further ground raids into Pakistan after furious complaints from its government, relying instead on an intensifying campaign of airstrikes by the Central Intelligence Agency against militants in the Pakistani mountains. … [A]ttacks by remotely piloted Predator aircraft have increased sharply in frequency and scope in the past three months. Through Sunday, there were at least 18 Predator strikes since the beginning of August. … Once largely reserved for missions to kill senior Arab Qaeda operatives, the Predator is increasingly being used to strike Pakistani militants and even trucks carrying rockets to resupply fighters in Afghanistan. Many of the Predator strikes are taking place as deep as 25 miles into Pakistani territory. …

So forget McCain's feigned dismay that Obama would send missiles deep into Pakistan.  President Bush is doing that already. Is Bush thereby jeopardizing the Pakistani government? Far from it. He's substituting missiles for ground troops to appease and protect the government. According to the Times,

A senior administration official said Sunday that no tacit agreement had been reached between the sides to allow increased Predator strikes in exchange for a backing off from additional American ground raids, an option the officials said remained on the table. But Pakistani officials have made clear in public statements that they regard the Predator attacks as a less objectionable violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

Is Pakistan outraged by the missiles? Hardly. The Times reports:

As part of the intensified attacks in recent months, the C.I.A. has expanded its list of targets inside Pakistan and has gained approval from the government in Islamabad to bolster eavesdropping operations in the border region, according to United States officials. … Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, told the Council on Foreign Relations this month that there was cooperation between the two countries in deploying "strategic equipment that is used against specific targets."

Maybe this explains how our drones have nailed a series of enemy nests over the past four weeks. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. And that's not even counting all the hits we scored in early September. (Update: While I was writing this, the drones struck again, this time nailing a Taliban commander who was paying his respects to the families of people killed in a previous  drone strike.) What, exactly, is our mysterious upgraded surveillance capability? Nobody's telling, but I have my theories.

Many things will change when Obama is elected. Other things will stay the same. And then there's a third category: things that are profoundly changing, and will continue to change, regardless of who's president. One of these things is anti-terrorist warfare. The war on terror is becoming a war between madmen and machines. A few years ago, jihadis had the upper hand because they didn't mind killing or dying. Now they're being blown away by remote-control pilots who can't be killed. The machines in the sky don't bleed, and they spare us the difficulties of an official troop presence. Pakistan has become the world's first robot proxy war.

There was a Democratic president before Bush. Acting on intelligence, Bill Clinton sent missiles into Afghanistan to kill Osama Bin Laden, and he didn't ask permission first. Under similar circumstances in Pakistan, Obama would do the same thing. The difference is that Clinton had to fire his missiles from thousands of miles away. Obama can do it from overhead.