Obama's Drones

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Jan. 24 2009 4:02 PM

Obama's Drones

Saturday's Washington Post brings the latest report from Pakistan:

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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Two remote U.S. missile strikes that killed at least 20 people at suspected terrorist hideouts in northwestern Pakistan yesterday offered the first tangible sign of President Obama's commitment to sustained military pressure on the terrorist groups there. ... It remained unclear yesterday whether Obama personally authorized the strike or was involved in its final planning, but military officials have previously said the White House is routinely briefed about such attacks in advance. At his daily White House briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs declined to answer questions about the strikes, saying, "I'm not going to get into these matters."

Why is Obama sticking with Bush's drone war? Because it's doing its job, grimly and quietly. Reuters has the body count :

The United States carried out about 30 attacks on suspected militants with missiles fired by pilotless drones in 2008, according to a Reuters tally, more than half after the beginning of September. The attacks killed more than 220 people, including foreign militants, according to a tally of reports from Pakistani intelligence agents, district government officials and residents.

That's roughly equal to the body count from the first day of Israel's December assault on Gaza . But the outcry is nowhere near as loud. In fact, the Post notes,

The Pakistani government, which has loudly protested some earlier strikes, was quiet yesterday. In September, U.S. and Pakistani officials reached a tacit agreement to allow such attacks to continue without Pakistani involvement, according to senior officials in both countries.

Pakistan finally piped up today, meekly expressing its "sincere hope that the United States will review its policy and adopt a more holistic and integrated approach."

Why the comparative silence? Because the drones aren't human -- technically, U.S. forces aren't in Pakistan -- and because they pick off their targets a few at a time, not in a massive blitz. They can hover, study, track, and wait for hot intelligence from the ground. That's one reason why they're killing a high ratio of bad guys to civilians .

Regional and intelligence experts say the strikes have improved in precision and have hit several top insurgent commanders in recent months. The notable change in tempo and reported accuracy could be partly attributed to a growing sense of urgency inside the Bush White House as the progress in the seven-year long war in Afghanistan stalled during the waning days of the administration. Samina Ahmed, director of the International Crisis Group in Pakistan, attributes some of the change to increased cooperation between the United States and Pakistan. "Given the fact that the past few strikes have actually gotten their targets with minimal or no civilian casualties, there is obviously better cooperation between the U.S. military and Pakistan," Ahmed said.

Remember, Israel's worst mass killings of civilians in Gaza happened when Israeli forces returned fire . But a drone doesn't need to return fire. It can listen, watch, and wait until it has the bad guys in its sights with few civilians in the way.

If I'm a new U.S. president who needs to hunt, kill, and deter terrorists without invading or occupying countries, this is the kind of war I want.