War is spreading across the Muslim world. U.S. forces are in Iraq. They're in Afghanistan. They're helping NATO in Libya. Even the United Nations—the United Nations!—is fighting in the Ivory Coast.
But one war has been going on quietly all along. It's quiet because the Americans fighting it aren't in the place where it's being fought. That place is the tribal regions of Pakistan, where we're hunting Taliban and al-Qaida militants. We've been waging this war not with ground troops, or even with planes, but with remotely piloted drones.
Now Pakistani officials are demanding that we back off. They're angry because a CIA contractor shot two men dead in a Pakistani city, creating a political mess. Pakistan wants CIA operatives to get out of the country, shrinking the U.S. "footprint" there. And it wants the drone attacks to stop. But drones don't increase our footprint in Pakistan. They reduce it.
Pakistan has every right to be angry about the shooting. The CIA security officer who did it, Raymond Davis, says the two men were trying to rob him. But you don't gun down two people, completely unrelated to your mission, in broad daylight in a country where you're supposed to be a "diplomat" and where your government and your agency are wildly unpopular. It didn't help that Davis' mission was to help infiltrate a militant group favored by Pakistan. Nor was Pakistan happy that a third civilian was killed in the incident by a CIA car trying to extract Davis. And to top it off, emissaries of the Pakistani government had to negotiate Davis' release from local justice so he could be spirited back to the hated U.S.
So Pakistan demanded an exodus of CIA personnel. Out went 130 contractors. Another 300 are supposedly packing their bags. The government also wants 25 to 40 percent of our special operations forces to hit the road. And while we're at it, Pakistani officials want our drone strikes cut back. They want the drones' roaming area narrowed. They want us to consult them before each strike, increasing the risk that the people we're targeting will disperse or be tipped off. And for now, they want the drone attacks suspended altogether. In fact, the attacks were suspended. A strike today was the first since four weeks ago, just after Davis was released. *
The Pakistanis see these measures as a crackdown on runaway foreign agents. They accuse the CIA of an "increasing American footprint" in Pakistan and insist that U.S. forces "cut down their footprints" in the country. That's a legitimate objection to operatives on the ground. But it's an odd rationale for suspending the drone war, which keeps American boots off Pakistani soil.
Pakistan says the drones kill too many civilians. It points to last month's drone strike, in which some tribal leaders were reportedly killed alongside the targeted militants. But the drones, thanks to their precise weapons and their ability to verify targets without risking pilots' lives, are killing civilians at a lower rate than any other form of warfare. Even critics of the drone program acknowledge that its rate of civilian casualties has plummeted. Two months ago, at a forum convened by the New America Foundation, Peter Bergen, the director of NAF's National Security Studies Program, conceded that the drones' civilian casualty rate had declined from 25 to 5 percent. That beats the NATO air campaign in Libya, in which pilots have to make quick decisions, sometimes with tragic consequences.
Bergen cited poll data indicating that the drones are unpopular in Pakistan. But that's nothing compared to the outrage that followed the Davis incident. One American driver firing a pistol created a political uproar worse than any missile from a drone. That's what happens when we put our feet on the ground.
Drones alone can't win the war in Pakistan. But by giving us a way to hunt our enemies without ground troops and with fewer civilian casualties, they can help us avoid losing it. If Pakistan wants a smaller American footprint on its territory, it should make its peace with a technology that leaves no footprints at all.
(Readings I recommend: Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann analyzed the first six years of the drone campaign in a 2010 NAF paper and then updated their assessment four months ago in Foreign Policy. Bill Roggio and Alexander Mayer calculate a lower rate of civilian casualties at the Long War Journal. P. W. Singer wrote a terrific overview of drone warfare and the future of unmanned systems in Slate last year. Several analysts consider Pakistan's latest demands in the New York Times' " Room for Debate" forum, and Uri Friedman has a good roundup of additional perspectives at the Atlantic Wire. But my vote for smartest take on the fracas goes to Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room.)
Correction, April 13, 2011: This article was prepared for publication overnight. It noted that no drone strikes had been reported since March 17. In the hours between preparation and publication, a drone strike was reported. The article has been revised accordingly. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)