Boots on the Ground, Not Unmanned Robots in the Sky

Helping Pakistan turn away from extremism requires books on the ground, not unmanned killer robots in the sky.

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FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night. The White House has no intentions to end CIA drone strikes against militant targets on Pakistani soil, setting the two countries up for diplomatic blows after Pakistani's parliament unanimously approved new guidelines for the country in its troubled relationship with the US, US and Pakistani officials say.

Irrespective of the latest reports on possible collusion between U.S. and Pakistani spy agencies, Amnesty International's newest report on the unlawful American drone killings in Pakistan – that kill more civilians than the White House admits and could amount to war crimes – is a well-timed attack on the Obama administration's modus operandi for dealing with dangerous adversaries.

Add to that former State Department official Nabeel Khoury's recent comment about how every American drone strike creates 40-60 new enemies, and something is clearly wrong with the state of drone warfare.

Take the example of Pakistan. In pursuing this now-infamous kill list, the White House has singlehandedly turned Pakistan, and its people, against the U.S. in under a decade, and a new film out this month – entitled "Unmanned: America's Drone Wars" – gives good insight into how it happened. Having worked in Pakistan from 2002 to 2005, a time when the country was more pro-American in public opinion, I have witnessed this country with its incredible history, culture, architecture, identity and innovation, sour in its sentiment towards America. Nothing could be more saddening.

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

That Pakistan's war zone residents are anti-American is, perhaps, no surprise. It's hard to find America favorable when you're being pummeled by air, sea and ground forces. The residual venom in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, stems from the U.S. disemboweling these countries within the last decade.  These were full-scale wars that left Iraq and Afghanistan with little to show for it and the U.S. with a tab of $4-6 trillion at a time when none of aforementioned countries could afford these kinds of costs.

But many in America think we've generally left Pakistan alone. The opposite is true. We're at war with Pakistan, and it's being waged primarily from the air, using drones. The Department of Defense and the White House justify the drones strikes by claiming claiming there's an "imminent threat," relying upon an authorization for use of military force, legislated by Congress shortly after the attacks in 2001, which is now being loosely defined and flagrantly misapplied.

Thanks to our drone war in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, the Pakistani people have turned against us – and no wonder. Our "signature" drone strikes, code for targeting and killing any movement on the ground that bears the signature of suspicious activity, without regard for actual intelligence, have already killed thousands of innocent bystanders.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Want a sense of the inaccuracy of these signature strikes? "Unmanned" shows you, detailing one of the worse strikes by American forces of a peaceful tribal Loya Jirga, which had gathered to discern local chromite mine and deforestation concerns. By drone-striking this Jirga and killing dozens of peaceful tribal leaders, the U.S. unwittingly wiped out the very wizened elders who had cautioned extremism in the past, and set the stage for younger, more extreme leaders to take their place.

What is most misguided about the Pentagon's drones practice is this: the notion that if you kill the top commander of an insurgency that it somehow will weaken the movement. Nothing could be further from the truth as there is always a deputy ready to stand in for the commander and fresh recruits to fill in for the deputy. Each new drone attack ensures this phenomenon continues.

Every time a drone drops a bomb on a car in Pakistan, we not only kill its passengers, but we simultaneously create a whole new community of recruits keen to avenge the killing. This was former State Department official Nabeel Khoury's point. Perhaps that is what the Pentagon wants. That would certainly please the defense industry, which is making tens of billions of dollars, as the film "Unmanned" points out, from this drones racket. The more anti-American adversaries generated the more people to fill the administration's kill list.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

America is missing opportunities for partnership with Pakistanis. Keep in mind that Pakistanis, much like Americans, love the law, love their country and love their sovereignty. In fact, their High Court already determined that American drones flout legal constructs. But even more importantly, there is a long history of tribal elders in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas committed to nonviolence, something Washington has rarely supported and highlighted since it's not consistent with the war on terrorism narrative for this region. The Awami National Party, for example, led by descendants of nonviolent Muslim leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (aka the "frontier Gandhi"), built their party around principles of nonviolence in the Pashtun dominated areas, also known as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Going forward, if America really wants to reduce extremism and violence in Pakistan, it will stop killing and maiming innocent Pakistanis caught in the crossfire. It won't cost tens of billions of dollars and it won't aid and abet the defense industry. But it will help win the hearts and minds of people who, while skeptical, were once reluctant to hate our country.

If we're going to be involved in Pakistan, we must give the people reasons to like us, not despise us. That means, going forward, we should invest in ameliorating the country's growing water crisis and electricity shortage, we're helping fix the pervasive and prevalent poverty problem, and we're helping these young men, and potential fighters, get educated and get jobs.

That's how you help Pakistan turn the tide away from extremism and closer to encountering a friendly position towards America. And it requires books on the ground, not unmanned killer robots in the sky.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Adjunct Faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

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