Negotiating with Pakistan over remote-controlled killing.

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 4 2008 9:18 AM

Call Off Your Drones

Negotiating with Pakistan over remote-controlled killing.

By tonight—trust me—Barack Obama will be president-elect of the United States. One of the first messes he'll face is the insurgency in Afghanistan. Specifically, he'll have to decide what to do about the robot proxy war in Pakistan.

If you've been following Human Nature's coverage of this war, you know the players: On one side, anti-American insurgents from al-Qaida and the Taliban; on the other, unmanned aerial spying and killing machines operated from the United States. We're less than thrilled about putting American troops on the ground in the treacherous physical and political terrain of northwest Pakistan. We tried it once, and the Pakistani government basically threatened to fight us. So we're hunting our enemies there by remote control, with drones. The death tally from the drones since August is around 100.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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The last two days bring increasing evidence that the insurgents are trying to punish drone strikes the same way they punish manned military action against them: by killing lots of people with suicide bombs. The principal display was a Sept. 20 hotel bombing in Islamabad. Two days ago, the militants struck again. A truck bomb killed eight Pakistani soldiers, "apparently retaliation for deadly missile strikes," according to the New York Times. Our drone operators had just tried to take out a senior Taliban commander, and Pakistani analysts construed the truck bomb as his "warning call" to the Pakistani government to back off. According to the Times, a Pakistani newspaper says the militants have "threatened to scrap a peace accord with the government if the United States did not halt air attacks against militant leaders."

That was Sunday. On Monday, Pakistani officials met with the new head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, and urged him to call off the drones. A statement from Pakistan's president said, "Continuing drone attacks on our territory, which result in loss of precious lives and property, are counterproductive and difficult to explain by a democratically elected government." Pakistan's defense ministry said drone strikes "could generate anti-American sentiments" and "create outrage and uproar among the people."

If the drones really are alienating the people, that's a big problem. Petraeus wants to do in Afghanistan and Pakistan what he did in Iraq: co-opt the public and our local enemies in order to isolate our mortal enemies. That means collaborating with the tribes and some Taliban elements against al-Qaida. Obama seems to be on the same page.

The tricky question is whether the drone attacks are directly alienating too many people or whether the Pakistani government is asking to Petraeus to call off the drones for more complicated reasons. One reason would be that the government doesn't want more truck bombs aimed at its own troops. A more ominous reason would be that the government doesn't want more bombs aimed at its hotels. If suicide bombs in hotels can force us to call off the drones, then terrorism is trumping remote-control technology.

The most interesting possibility is that the leverage game is being played both ways. That is, the drones aren't really—or aren't only—a way to hunt our enemies. They're a way to pressure the Pakistani government to take care of the job itself. As Obama has repeatedly put it, if Pakistan knows where the bad guys are and "won't act, we will."

So now we're acting. Since ground raids aren't safe enough to be a credible threat to the insurgents, we're using drones. By all accounts, the drone attacks have been highly effective at killing high-value targets. If that's a problem for the Pakistani government, and they've got a better way to stamp out the insurgency, and they can show us that they're serious about doing it, then, as Obama might say, we're all ears.