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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

160 Countries Host Marches to Demand Action on Climate Change

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.