Present Without Leave

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 16 2009 7:59 AM

Present Without Leave

The boss of the Pakistani Taliban likes to train his fighters at a big house in the mountainous region near Afghanistan. Or perhaps I should say, he used to. Reuters has called the house " fortress-like ." If U.S. troops had tried to storm it, the militants inside might have repelled or killed them. But the Americans never showed up in person. Instead, on Saturday, they sent an unmanned aerial vehicle, which fired a missile into the compound, killing around 30 enemy insurgents. So much for fortresses.

Then, today, American drones struck another Pakistani Taliban hideout. The initial casualty count at the second compound is even higher. And that's before all the bodies are pulled from the rubble. 

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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Even by the lowest casualty estimates, these are the two most lethal strikes of the monthslong robot proxy war we've been waging in Pakistan. For those of you keeping score, the number of drone strikes since July is now running into the  30s , and the body count has passed 250 , including eight or more senior al-Qaida officers .

The military advantage of sending drones instead of soldiers is that we can blow away fortresses and adversaries while keeping our troops out of harm's way. But there's a political advantage, too: If we don't set foot on Pakistani soil, Pakistan's government doesn't have to explain to its people why it's tolerating an American occupation.

That's why the official U.S. and Pakistani response to reporters' questions about the massacre at the Taliban compound is silence. The CIA, which operates our Predator drones in Pakistan, isn't talking . Neither is our embassy in Islamabad. Neither is the Pakistani government . Nothing to see here, folks. No American boots on the ground. Move along.

But—oops!—it turns out that we do have people on the ground in Pakistan. And they're managing the drones. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., spilled the beans at a Senate hearing on Thursday. Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times explains what happened:

Feinstein expressed surprise over Pakistani opposition to the campaign of Predator-launched CIA missile strikes against Islamic extremist targets along Pakistan's northwestern border. "As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base," she said. ... [F]ormer U.S. intelligence officials ... confirmed that Feinstein's account was accurate. ... As chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein is privy to classified details of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.

It didn't take long for Feinstein's slip to hit the Pakistani press . And it was news to most Pakistanis, who, like the rest of us , have assumed all along that the drones flew over the border from Afghanistan .

Predators may be unmanned, but they're hardly unsupervised. In addition to being remotely piloted, they're locally prepped and serviced. In military parlance, they're unmanned "systems," and the systems include on-site crews. If the Predators are operating from a base in Pakistan, then we have personnel at that base to tend and help launch them.

Who are these personnel? Miller reports that in recent years, the CIA "has deployed as many as 200 people" to Pakistan, working "alongside other U.S. operatives who specialize in electronic communications and spy satellites." If the CIA operates the Predators and the Predators take off from Pakistan, then ... well, it's pretty obvious. And this defeats much of the political advantage of using drones in the first place. It puts our forces squarely on Pakistani soil.

Why the agency bases its drones in Pakistan instead of just flying them over the border from Afghanistan baffles me. But a senator blurting out this secret at a public hearing? That doesn't surprise me at all. Unmanned vehicles are getting smarter and less error-prone all the time, but human beings are as fallible and foolish as ever. Maybe now that we've learned how to keep pilots out of harm's way, we can do the same for politicians.