Eyes and Ears

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 11 2008 8:12 AM

Eyes and Ears

A week ago, when we last checked in on the drone war in Pakistan, the news wasn't good. Insurgents had bombed a Pakistani hotel and a security checkpoint, apparently in retaliation for drone strikes on them. The Pakistani government, in turn, was asking the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, to call off the drones . Petraeus said he'd listen. It looked as though the United States might buckle.

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William Saletan William Saletan

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

Then Petraeus went to Afghanistan and praised the drones. "It is hugely important that three of 20 extremist leaders have been killed in recent months," he told the AP . And on Friday, the Pakistanis got their answer. A drone attack killed another dozen suspected militants at a Taliban commanders' house.

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The machines have now racked up more than 100 kills in Pakistan since August. Petraeus has been lobbied, and Barack Obama has been elected, but the drone strikes go on.

How is Pakistan greeting this aggression? Is it threatening to fight? Hardly. Yesterday the country's president told the AP , "We feel that the strikes are an intrusion on our sovereignty, which are not appreciated by the people at large, and the first aspect of this war is to win the hearts and mind of the people."

"Feel"? "Not appreciated"? It's hard to come up with weaker language than that. The real message seems to be: Do what you must, but try not to give us political trouble.

From that standpoint, drones are a lot less harmful than the alternatives. The biggest popular anti-American protests in Pakistan recently were triggered not by drones but by a U.S. ground incursion . Likewise, in Afghanistan, recent politically incendiary mass killings of civilians have been inflicted (accidentally) by human operators on the scene. Yes, the drones have killed some Pakistani civilians. But not nearly as many, it appears, as Pakistani forces have killed in their own clumsy campaign against the insurgents.

Why do the drones have a better record of minimizing mistakes? For one thing, they don't have to make quick decisions. They can hover, watch, and wait. The intelligence they collect can be sifted and weighed by multiple supervisors before reaching a decision to fire. And in Pakistan, they seem to have an additional asset: human sources on the ground. The Washington Post explains:

Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah, former longtime head of [Pakistani] government security in the tribal areas, said the missile attacks have become noticeably more precise, leading some to believe that local tribesmen in the border areas are supplying the U.S. military with better information about targets. Shah said rumors about so-called U.S. spies among the tribes have fed paranoia about the possibility that signaling devices have been deployed in area villages. Tribesmen have lately made a habit of sweeping the areas around their homes for such devices, he said. "They're not sitting outside in their compounds anymore because they are afraid that they will be struck by these missiles," Shah said.

All this time, I've been looking for technological answers to the mystery of the drones' precision, their increasing ability to find the bad guys. But maybe the answer isn't machines. Maybe it's people.

And if it's people, then the bad guys don't have to fight the machines. They can do what they already know how to do: kill some people and intimidate the rest. That seems to be what they're trying. A day after Friday's drone strike, Agence France-Presse reported :

Taliban militants killed two Afghan men Saturday in Pakistan's restive tribal belt after accusing them of spying for US-led forces. ... The executions were the latest in a string of similar killings and come a day after a suspected US drone fired missiles and destroyed an Al-Qaeda sanctuary in North Waziristan, killing 14. ... Executions routinely follow suspected US missile strikes against militant targets in Pakistan, which officials say are often conducted on intelligence provided by paid local informants.

According to the AP, the two bodies were thrown onto a road, each pinned with a note that said, " See the fate of this man. He was an American spy ."

Were the men really spies? If so, were they scouting targets for the drones? I don't know. But for the last three months, somebody's been doing a heck of a job finding the bad guys in northwest Pakistan. Maybe, as U.S. military sources have let on, it's the drones themselves . Or maybe that's the cover story for what's still the world's greatest enemy-detection device: the human being.