“[Muhammad] seized an opportunity to host the Arab and Chechen fighters from al-Qaida who crossed into Pakistan to escape the American bombing. For Mr. Muhammad, it was partly a way to make money, but he also saw another use for the arriving fighters. With their help, over the next two years he launched a string of attacks on Pakistani military installations and on American firebases in Afghanistan.”
In short, Muhammad wasn’t just Pakistan’s enemy. He was ours, too. He was targeting our people. So we weren’t just offering to do Pakistan’s dirty work. We were picking the guy on our list whose death was most likely to whet the appetite of our would-be collaborators.
Third, the drone strikes, for all their ugliness, were better than what they replaced. Mazzetti reports that prior to the June 2004 strike on Muhammad, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf
“ordered his troops into the forbidding mountains to deliver rough justice to Mr. Muhammad and his fighters, hoping the operation might put a stop to the attacks on Pakistani soil … In March 2004, Pakistani helicopter gunships and artillery pounded Wana and its surrounding villages. Government troops shelled pickup trucks that were carrying civilians away from the fighting and destroyed the compounds of tribesmen suspected of harboring foreign fighters.”
A subsequent cease-fire soon collapsed. Muhammad “resumed attacks against Pakistani troops, and Mr. Musharraf ordered his army back on the offensive in South Waziristan.” This is what the U.S. strike on Muhammad shattered: not peace, but a bloody ground war full of civilian casualties.
These caveats don’t make the drone war honest, brave, or clean. But they do challenge us to be as careful in criticizing it as we expect the government to be in conducting and justifying it. The rise of the Predators over Pakistan wasn’t innocent. Neither were the terrorists who provoked it, the ground wars that preceded it, or the blood that sealed the deal.
William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: