I am sympathetic to the argument over the U.S.’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan. I obviously have picked my side, but I also don’t think it immoral to argue why our goals are either misguided or impossible. I think that sort of debate is healthy in a Democracy.
However, if Afghanistan is unwinnable, there must be some sort of mitigation factor, since Afghanistan and Pakistan remain the “global epicenters” (as David Kilcullen would put it) of transnational terrorism. And this is where I step back in horror: what I find absolutely reprehensible is how many in the questioning crowd pretend drone strikes in Pakistan are an acceptable substitutes for actual strategies… and worse, write off civilian casualties as honest mistakes we pink swear not to make again because we have better machines now.
Thus, if the core concern is terrorism, Washington should concentrate on its already effective policy of eliminating al Qaeda’s leadership with drone strikes. In what amounts to a targeted killing program, the United States uses two types of unmanned aerial vehicles — the Predator and the faster, higher-altitude Reaper, which can carry two Hellfire missiles and precision-guided bombs — to attack individuals and safe houses associated with al Qaeda and related militant groups, such as the Haqqani network. Most of these strikes have taken place in North or South Waziristan, as deep as 25 miles into Pakistani territory. There were about 36 against militant sites inside Pakistan in 2008, and there have been approximately 16 so far in 2009. Among the senior al Qaeda leaders killed in the past year were Abu Jihad al-Masri, al Qaeda’s intelligence chief; Khalid Habib, number four in al Qaeda and head of its operations in Pakistan; Abu Khabab al-Masri, al Qaeda’s most experienced explosives expert, who had experimented with biological and chemical weapons; and Abu Laith al-Libi, the al Qaeda commander in Afghanistan. Some 130 civilians have also been killed, but improved guidance and smaller warheads should lead to fewer unintended casualties from now on.
Four al Qaeda leaders are, in Steven Simon’s world, worth 130 innocent lives, barely worth the middle clause of a compound sentence. Of course, more innocent people have died as the number of drone strikes in Pakistan have increased.
And it remains a mystery why the U.S. has such an enormous credibility deficit in Pakistan? It’s not that we must conduct a casualty-free war—that would be a silly demand. But the sheer callousness with which these innocent lives are written off is morally repugnant. Even feigning concern over their loss—which does have strategic implications, it is important to remember—would be better than “meh, we have better weapons now.”
Making things worse, Simon then notes approvingly that the drone strikes have driven al Qaeda leadership from the tribal areas into the settled areas of Pakistan like Quetta. Here, he notes approvingly that President Obama has decided to accept the costs of bombing major cities in Pakistan because he might grab a terrorist here or there.
Again: the prospect of killing a lot of innocent people in the process is “meh”—we have the budget, we have the robots, so whatever, right? How disgusting. These are not people we want in charge of our foreign policy.