How Pakistan learned to stop worrying and love the killing machines.

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 17 2008 7:57 AM

Drone Ask, Drone Tell

How Pakistan learned to stop worrying and love the killing machines.

President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan
President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan

Good news from Pakistan: The drones are winning.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

If you're a regular Human Nature reader, you know the story line we've been following here and on the blog: Pakistan has become the world's first mechanical proxy war, with unmanned aerial vehicles hunting and killing bad guys so U.S. troops don't have to. It's a strategic showdown between the ruthless and the bloodless. The drones have taken away the usual insurgent advantage of luring, bogging down, and picking off an invading army. The insurgents have responded by killing Pakistani civilians, hoping to bully Pakistan into pressuring the United States to call off the drones.

In recent weeks, as Pakistani officials urged the U.S. to stop the drone attacks, I wondered whether these appeals were sincere or fake. They sure sounded fake. Now we have confirmation. In Sunday's Washington Post, Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick report what they've learned from interviews with U.S. and Pakistani officials. Here are the highlights:

1. The drones are succeeding tactically. They found and killed three al-Qaida leaders in the first nine months of this year. In October, after drone operations intensified, they killed three more.

2. Pakistan tacitly accepts the drones. The U.S. and Pakistan "reached tacit agreement in September on a don't-ask-don't-tell policy that allows unmanned Predator aircraft to attack suspected terrorist targets in rugged western Pakistan, according to senior officials in both countries." Terms: "the U.S. government refuses to publicly acknowledge the attacks while Pakistan's government continues to complain noisily about the politically sensitive strikes."

3. Terrorism in Pakistan has made the government more acquiescent to drones, not less. According to U.S. officials, "Pakistan's new acquiescence coincided with the new government there and a sharp increase in domestic terrorist attacks." The attacks have persuaded Pakistan that the terrorists along its border are a grave threat to Pakistan as well as to Afghanistan and the U.S. The new acquiescence can be measured in hits: "From December to August, when Musharraf stepped down, there were six U.S. Predator attacks in Pakistan. Since then, there have been at least 19."

Let's think through what we've just read. Terrorists use civilian deaths and the prospect of more civilian deaths to blackmail governments. This is a political game, not just a military one. It's what they did, for example, to Spain four years ago. In Pakistan, they've tried the same thing, but this time with a new twist: The enemy they're trying to neutralize is mechanical. The terrorists can't bog down or kill the drones because drones don't bleed and they don't have to land. So the terrorists tried to blackmail the nearest civilian target, Pakistan, to gain leverage over the drones.

If the Post story is correct, this strategy failed. In fact, it backfired. The terrorists are losing not just the military fight but the political one.

Now let's move on to two related points.

4. The drones are becoming more precise thanks to ground intelligence, technology, and practice. The Post reports:

Current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials said improved intelligence has been an important factor in the increased tempo and precision of the Predator strikes. Over the past year, they said, the United States has been able to improve its network of informants in the border region while also fielding new hardware that allows close tracking of the movements of suspected militants. … [T]he drones are only part of a diverse network of machines and software used by the agency to spot terrorism suspects and follow their movements, the officials said. The equipment … includes an array of powerful sensors mounted on satellites, airplanes, blimps and drones.

Another factor, DeYoung and Warrick point out, is that "in recent years—and especially in the past 12 months—spy agencies have honed their skills at tracking and killing single individuals using aerial vehicles."

5. Improved precision means fewer civilian casualties. The Post quotes James Clapper Jr., the U.S. military's chief intelligence officer: "It's having the ability, once you know who you're after, to study and watch very steadily and consistently—persistently. And then, at the appropriate juncture, with due regard for reducing collateral casualties or damage, going after that individual."

Let's digest these two points and connect them to the previous discussion. Human sources on the ground are handy. The downside is that unlike drones, the humans can bleed and be intimidated. That's why the bad guys have been trying to find, kill, and intimidate them. To the extent that we have a persistent or growing network of informants, the bad guys are failing. That's the good news. The better news is that much of our success may be due to improved air-mounted sensors. (I've guessed at what these sensors might be doing, but I really don't know.) Good luck killing and intimidating the sensors. If we can not only kill you from the air but also find you from the air, you're screwed.

Still better news: the practice factor. In addition to informants on the ground and drones in the sky, remote hunting relies on a third player: the faraway "pilots" who operate the drones. This isn't a normal way of fighting, unless you're a video gamer. It takes time for a pilot's brain to map a faraway fleet and adopt it, in essence, as his body. (At the recommendation of many of you in the Fray, I just listened to the audio edition of Ender's Game, a sci-fi novel that illustrates how this can happen.) But it's crucial, because you need human judgment to check and complement the drones' calculations. Sensors can give you plenty of information, but you have to learn how to interpret it—and how to direct the sensors to get what you need. Apparently, we're learning.

And now for the best news: the payoff. I'm not talking about the kills: We've already proved we can kill lots of people the old-fashioned way. I'm talking about the people we don't kill: civilians. We've talked before about hover time: the drones' superior ability to stay in the air, without fatigue or risk of death, allowing them to watch the ground and identify and track targets. If that level of persistence and precision improves our ability to distinguish the bad guys from everybody else, then the bottom line isn't just kills. It is, in Clapper's words, fewer "collateral casualties." If you look back at reports from the ground, that's exactly what stands out about the recent drone attacks: We've been hitting an impressively high ratio of bad guys, especially senior bad guys, to innocents. Yes, some innocents have died. But no counterinsurgent air war has ever been this precise.

And that precision, in turn, feeds back into the political equation. Pakistan tolerates the drones not just because it fears the terrorists but because the drones are earning its confidence. They're not inflicting the sort of massacres that trigger domestic unrest and destabilize allies. In fact, the drones are doing such a good job that Pakistan now wants drones of its own. "Give them to us," Pakistan's president tells the Post. "We are your allies."

Some day, Pakistan will have its drones. So will India, China, and Iran. The proliferation of drones is well underway. Maybe it will solve the problem of terrorist insurgency. Maybe it will create something worse.

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