Oh God Please No

by Joshua Foust on 3/19/2009 · 7 comments

President Obama is under pressure to extend US missile strikes against suspected Taleban leaders into the Pakistani city of Quetta under recommendations from national security experts reviewing US policy in the region.

In a development that caused dismay among Pakistani leaders, two reports sent to the President recommended that the CIA step up attacks by pilotless drones in and around Quetta, the densely populated capital of Baluchistan province.

Mr Obama has yet to make a decision but is under pressure to act against the large number of Taleban insurgents in the city, including Mullah Omar, the Taleban leader, and commanders leading the insurgency across the border in Afghanistan.

Until now the strikes have been aimed at only al-Qaeda and Taleban militants sheltering in and around Pakistan’s northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) on the border with Afghanistan. US officials say such attacks have killed several dozen top militants. The attacks have been made with the tacit support of the Pakistan Government and Army but Pakistani officials have repeatedly protested in public.

It’s not just Pakistani authorities—if Obama thinks that a civilian, democratically-elected government is an important bulwark against an unaccountable military and the ultimate victory of Islamist extremism—both debatable concepts to be sure—then they must not escalate the drone attacks. As they stand now, those drone attacks are the best militant recruitment tool the TTP and LeT have, as they are deeply unpopular even among anti-terrorist and anti-extremist leaders in Pakistan.

Since people actually listen when David Kilcullen speaks, they should listen to his advice on the FATA: stop the strikes if you want to stop the terrorists.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Curmudgeon March 19, 2009 at 8:17 am

Frankly anyone who suggest dropping guided bombs in an urban area in a situation other than all-up war either 1) believes weapons manufacturer accuracy PR a little too much and/or 2) doesn’t give a crap about civilian deaths and their consequences. #1 is more forgivable than #2, but anyone who believes either has no business being considered a credible strategic thinker. If this is the highest quality thought ‘national security experts’ can come up with regarding Afghanistan/Pakistan, then the US might as well just pack up and come home because they have a snowball’s chance of ‘winning’ the conflict, regardless of what the actual winning criteria might be.

(the lack of any defined winning criteria is another issue…)

Curtis March 19, 2009 at 10:37 am

What you need to understand is that the cost of those civialins may be needed to help end this war. Killing a few people to save hundreds of our own is necassary. Dropping the nuke on Japan ended the war and ended the brutality of the war in one quick manuver. Now im not suggesting nukes but if collateral damage is the cost of taking out people that caused this war and people that will countinue this war then it happens. It sucks, but it has to be done to save others in the end

Joshua Foust March 19, 2009 at 10:59 am

Curtis, the point I’m making is that assuming those civilians are disposable is part of what is driving the problems we have right now with militancy. It is precisely because those people don’t feel they have a stake in their own affairs that they are rising up — bombing them won’t change that belief.

michaelhancock March 19, 2009 at 11:52 am

Curtis, I have a hard time seeing what the atom bomb’s lesson is going to teach us in Afghanistan/Pakistan.

Chris Mewett March 19, 2009 at 1:54 pm

Joshua — could not agree more with your objections to unilateral strikes in Pak. The problem here is that the President and his advisors are driven to prioritize limited but politically popular objectives over a course of action that reasonably addresses our broader strategic goals in the region.

An American is never going to pick up the New York Times, see “AQ leader dead in Pakistan missile strike” and think golly gee, the President is making the world more dangerous by eroding the legitimacy and authority of the Pakistani state! They’re going to think Yeah, get some! Another dead terrorist! Our President is swell!

But the real problem here, as both you and Kilcullen have noted in the past, is that an important strategic objective in south Asia is the buttressing of Pakistani governmental authority. This is much, much more important than eliminating targets of opportunity; the survival of the Pakistani state as it is presently constituted is a matter of perhaps existential importance to the United States, while the continued existence and/or operational effectiveness of al-Qaeda is not.

This is what doesn’t make sense to me (among other things) about those who argue in favor of the light-footprint, withraw-the-bulk-of-U.S.-forces model that depends on a sustained SOF presence and airpower to eliminate terrorists and engage in area denial for their organizations. “Kill terrorists” is not a strategic objective, and a mission built around that commandment is just myopic populism disguised as aggressive security policy.

Curmudgeon March 19, 2009 at 3:38 pm


Being seen to place disproportionate value on your own forces vs. the lives of local civilians is one-way ticket to losing a COIN war. You can’t destroy a village to save it.

MK March 19, 2009 at 4:36 pm

While I am sympathetic to your argument, and think that at minimum the strikes should be radically scaled back, there is the problem that, at the moment, it seems like the Pakistani government is resisting implementing the preferable strategy of properly training and equipping not just the Frontier Corps, but regular Pakistani army units to do COIN in NWFP and FATA. This would, of course, have to be accompanied by real investment in those areas as well – again, not something Islamabad seems very eager to undertake.

However, on the subject of the impact of the drone attacks on public opinion, the Aryana Institute (which has offices in Islamabad, Quetta, Peshawar and Malakand, published poll numbers earlier this month that present a much more mixed picture than our conventional wisdom suggests. Asked “Do you think anti-American feelings in the area increased due to drone attacks recently?” 42% said yes, while 58% said no.

Not sure what to make of it, but most of Aryana’s researchers are based at University of Peshawar, so it’s not like it’s outsides asking leading questions.

You can find the story here: http://www.thenews.com.pk/daily_detail.asp?id=165781

And the Aryana Institute here:


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