Why Drones Are Here to Stay

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Why Drones Are Here to Stay

The row over US attacks in Pakistan has highlighted uncertainties over the rules of engagement. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.

Recent weeks have brought into sharp focus just how delicate the balancing act is for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan as it battles extremists alongside a sometimes reluctant ally.

In recent months, Western intelligence agencies intercepted information suggesting that terrorists were preparing to conduct mass murder along the lines of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, in which 166 people were killed in a series of coordinated commando assaults. Indeed, the threat became so serious that the US State Department issued a warning to Americans travelling to Europe to be particularly vigilant.

Concerned about evidence suggesting the likely attackers were being trained in terrorist safe havens in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, NATO stepped up its drone attacks on Pakistani territory and launched air strikes using helicopter gunships operating from Afghanistan. They reportedly killed more than one hundred presumed members of the extremist Haqqani group (which is suspected of having close ties to Pakistan’s intelligence service), including some radicalized Europeans.

But there was a complication. During a helicopter attack on one group of insurgents that was fleeing across the border, two of the alliance's helicopters allegedly flew into Pakistani airspace and, in firing surface-to-air missiles, killed three members of the Pakistani Frontier Corps and wounded three others manning the Mandata Kandaho border post. 

Was this a violation of Pakistan’s airspace? The difficulty for combatants is that the Afghan-Pakistan border, with its disputed boundary and lack of distinctive natural geography, isn’t clearly demarcated, and some sources also suggest the helicopters were anyway fired upon first from the border post.

According to the Pentagon, the helicopter crew in question was investigating reports that insurgents had erected a new firing position along the border, which ISAF considers a potential threat to its operations in the region. With this in mind, US Defence Department Spokesman Geoff Morrell argued that US troops retain the right to self-defence wherever they are deployed.

NATO, for its part, has invited Pakistani military representatives to participate in a joint investigation, and offered them access to the video tapes taken by the helicopter’s onboard cameras to demonstrate the accuracy of its account.   

But even before these professed preventive strikes, NATO officials had been quietly justifying such attacks by citing the failure of the Pakistani Army to occupy and suppress guerrilla and terrorist bases in the tribal regions, especially in North Waziristan. NATO commanders say they’ve had little choice but to step up their own cross-border aerial attacks to deny the insurgents a sanctuary.

And NATO isn’t the only one that’s been concerned about activity in the tribal region—the Afghan government has been urging such action for years, while even some Pakistani officials had come to tolerate the US-led cross-border air attacks as a better option than sending their own forces into the region, where they’d likely suffer heavy casualties.

So what should we make of this sometimes contradictory—and certainly hotly debated—set of considerations?

Pentagon spokespeople have always declined to officially comment on US rules for using military force in Pakistan, but this hasn’t stopped such information gradually coming to light. Back in August 2007, while reviewing more than 1000 pages of documents released in the course of the US Army’s investigation of the death of Ranger Pat Tillman, the media discovered information regarding the rules of engagement that governed US military operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border at the time of his death, in April 2004. 

As was to be expected, the rules indicated that the US Secretary of Defence, then Donald Rumsfeld, could order a major military incursion into Pakistan if he deemed such action was necessary (although in practice, presumably, the secretary would consult with his cabinet colleagues and the president before doing so). In addition, it was made clear that the head of US Central Command could authorize direct military action against what the documents refer to as ‘The Big 3’ (al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden; his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri; and the head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar).

More controversially, though, the documents stated that under three different circumstances US field commanders could, on their own authority, authorize units to ‘penetrate no deeper than 10 kilometres’ into Pakistan.

The first circumstance was if they were in ‘hot pursuit’ of al-Qaeda, Taliban, and other terrorist operatives who had fled into Pakistan from Afghanistan. Alternatively, US forces would be allowed to cross the border to recover the crews of US planes and helicopters that had crashed in Pakistan. Finally, US troops were also to be allowed to traverse the border, or shoot at hostile targets located on the Pakistani side, if they were ‘in contact with’ enemy forces (i.e. exchanging fire with them). What’s most interesting about the documents is that they don’t indicate that US commanders had to seek approval from—or even inform—Pakistani authorities before conducting incursions into their territory.

On top of this, US commanders appear to have expanded this concept still further over the years to justify either pre-emptive or preventive strikes designed to disrupt an attack before it could occur (a considerable expansion of the notion of ‘hot pursuit’). US and Afghan units that have come under attack by mortars and other fire from attackers in Pakistan, meanwhile, have engaged in retaliatory counter fire on the grounds of self-defence.

NATO officers for their part have regularly complained that the Pakistani military was only attacking the Pakistani Taliban, not the Afghan Taliban or the al-Qaeda hideouts in the autonomous tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. (Presumably this is because the latter haven’t generally attacked Pakistanis and the Pakistani government and military want to maintain a truce or nonaggression pact with these groups while they concentrate on dealing with the threat from the Pakistani Taliban). The picture is complicated further by the fact that military planners also want to focus on maintaining robust defences against India, with some members of the Pakistani national security community seeing these groups as potential allies against India.

But does Pakistan passivity over the Taliban threat tip over into a certain amount of complicity? US analysts continue to complain that some members of the Pakistani intelligence services continue to provide aid to the Taliban, including alerting them to US air strikes on Pakistani territory. It’s likely for this reason that US rules of engagement didn’t seem to require advanced US notification to Pakistani authorities of impending attacks on the country’s territory.

The problems with the uncertainty over the rules of engagement in the border areas have been compounded by the ease of use of the main weapon for US military operations in Pakistan—remotely piloted armed drones. These attacks have largely been conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency and the US Defence Department, which launch direct attacks on high-value al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in northwest Pakistan. CIA and Defence Department unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Predator and Reaper drones, which are armed with Hellfire missiles, have reportedly killed hundreds of people in northwest Pakistan in recent years.

Indeed, these numbers have surged this year as the Obama administration has been seeking to complement the increase in US combat troops inside Afghanistan with intensified operations in the Taliban sanctuary in neighbouring Pakistan.

How are these drone attacks viewed in Pakistan? Former Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, though rejecting proposals to conduct joint missions with US forces inside Pakistan, reportedly privately agreed that the United States could conduct the drone and hot pursuit operations. However, since assuming office in 2008, Pakistan’s new civilian government has never publicly authorized US military operations on its territory, even as cross-border operations. Instead, it has insisted that Pakistani regular troops and paramilitary forces can deal with the Taliban insurgents and any high-value al-Qaeda terrorist targets.

Such caution is in a sense understandable as the civilian government in Pakistan is in a tricky situation. On the one hand, it must show Pakistani nationalists that they are not US lackeys and will resist Washington’s pressure—the advent of a democracy has made it more difficult for the government to pursue Musharraf’s policy of simply ignoring popular views. Pakistanis also note that whatever consent Musharraf gave lapsed with his retirement.

All this comes against the backdrop of hostile public opinion toward the United States in general, and US military operations within their country in particular. Pakistanis widely blame the US war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda for bringing terrorism to their country, and they point to dozens of suicide bombings to underscore their point. They therefore see the stepped up drone and border attacks of recent years as a form of coercion to get them to crack down on the Taliban insurgents and terrorists operating in tribal areas.

But Pakistan also receives billions of dollars of assistance from the United States, and the civilian government is genuinely opposed to terrorism. As a result, Pakistani officials have sought to limit US military operations in their country by affirming their commitment to reign in extremist activity in Pakistan and across the border. Meanwhile, the Pakistani Army has also resumed military operations against the Pakistani Taliban (although the recent floods has disrupted whatever intent it had to expand operations throughout the tribal areas).

However, despite the government’s formal opposition to the drone attacks, it’s understood that the UAVs operate within Pakistan with that government’s approval (and reportedly with its intelligence assistance now that the drones target the Pakistani Taliban as well). 

So why the outcry over the latest incident? The Pakistani government is likely to have been less bothered by the recent attacks in principle as it was by the overt acknowledgment by the US military that its forces had crossed into Pakistani territory and killed Pakistanis. This unease would have been compounded by the fact that a few days before the killing of the Frontier Corps, a cross-border attack by US helicopter gunships killed as many as 60 fighters who had been attacking an Afghan border post but were then in Pakistani territory.

The Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs had called the attack on its territory a ‘clear violation and breach of the UN mandate’ that authorized ISAF combat operations only in Afghanistan and again denied that there were agreed conditions under which coalition forces could enter Pakistani territory. Its protestations were likely, then, an effort to lay down a marker for future reference.

The problem with finding a set of rules that suit both sides, all the time, is that both may still be suffering from misperceptions about the other side’s capabilities. US officials and their NATO and Afghan allies believe that the Pakistani military could easily crack down on the Afghan Taliban insurgents in the tribal areas if they really tried, instead of hedging their bets. At the same time, the Pakistani public appears to believe that if the coalition really got its act together, it could easily employ overwhelming force to crush the Taliban guerrillas and secure the Afghan-Pakistan border.

All this means that despite the furore of the past few weeks, the current arrangement—whatever its flaws and lack of clarity—is probably better than the main alternatives.  The drones are controversial, but are still preferable to leaving it up to the Pakistani military to repress the terrorists in the tribal regions (something they are generally seen as not eager or capable of doing) or sending in US combat troops to raid or permanently occupy Pakistani territory. In addition, the billions of dollars of economic aid enacted by the US Congress last year should soon start flowing into Pakistan in the form of tangible projects, which should help smooth over the recent tensions.

Indeed, the real problems will emerge in about a year when the allies begin to pull their troops out of Afghanistan, tempting the Pakistani security elite to again hedge their bets with the Taliban. After all, many in Pakistan still see the Taliban as a potentially useful ally in what Islamabad alone perhaps sees as the battle for influence between Pakistan and India for Afghanistan.

With this in mind, Washington and NATO will need to achieve success with more than just drone attacks—they will also need to try, somehow, to find a way to reconcile Islamabad and New Delhi before they leave.