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Pakistan and Pure Counter-Terrorism

Because of their shared Pashtun tribal regions, our fight with Islamic extremism in Afghanistan spills over into Pakistan. Yet, America takes completely different approaches to these two battlefields.  In Afghanistan, America conducts a holistic counter-insurgency campaign using policing, humanitarian aid and nation building to discredit the Afghanistan Taliban. In Pakistan, America conducts a purely counter-terrorist approach, using only drone strikes to kill the Pakistan Taliban.

Two different approaches to two similar problems: which approach works better?

Apparently, neither. While I have discussed Afghanistan before and our struggles with counter-insurgency there, Pakistan worries me more. We cannot kill our way out of this problem. Trying to do so yields an unsurprising result: Pakistanis hate us. Specifically, they hate drone strikes, which symbolize American cowardice in their eyes.

On Secretary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan in October, she learned the extent of Pakistani disdain for America. On many of her stops, she was harshly criticized for American drone strikes. Pakistanis compared the attacks to terrorism; one described them as daily “9/11s.” She defended the strikes as a necessary part of war.

Perhaps they are necessary to win in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Common wisdom says that drone strikes have been overwhelmingly successful; we have minimal casualties with maximum lethality. Since the US military can't put ground troops into Pakistan, drones provide an effective way to target Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership.

But relying on unmanned aerial vehicles means relying on a strategy of pure firepower. This strategy gives no governmental assistance to the affected region, puts no maneuver forces on the ground (except for the occasional Pakistan military operation; I will have a later post on my thoughts on them), and distributes no information to explain our actions. This strategy relies on the barest of information to accomplish the mission--mostly signal intelligence with little human intelligence. Such a limited counter-terrorist approach alienates the local population and actually strengthens the Taliban.

We shouldn't be surprised at the reaction of Pakistanis either. 9/11 radically changed America in the name of safety and freedom. The death of three thousand Americans motivated the US to create a new cabinet position, to start a new cabinet department with hundreds of thousands of employees, to pass the most invasive security billed ever, and launch two wars. Pakistan has been repeatedly plummeted with both drone strikes and Islamic terrorism; of course they will feel angry.

The situation in Pakistan should show America the limits to relying on a pure counter-terrorism, technological approach in Afghanistan. Currently, in Afghanistan we have maneuver forces, ground intelligence, fire power from several sources, civil reconstruction teams, PSYOPs people, special forces groups, information operations personnel, humanitarian organizations, and a whole host of people helping fight a counter-insurgency. Firepower without maneuver or counter-insurgency forces will only breed more terrorism.

two comments

I have to agree and disagree. First, I find the predator drones to be a high value asset. They’re useful recon tools and striking tools. While I agree that the “biggest stick wins the war” rule isn’t a viable axiom anymore, the fact remains that the drones do provide an effective way to target leadership. While their use may be seen as cowardly, it’s little different from the use of snipers to remove high value targets from amongst the live. It’s the same type of “cowardly” killing from a distance, but with better technology.

Of course, in my scenario, the civilian casualties and collateral damage are at nil. I do not support predator strikes on targets amongst civilians. However, if enemy combatants are located in the open, a predator strike seems ideal.

That said, you’re absolutely right as far as pure counter terrorism being ineffective. Civil reconstruction, humanitarian projects, and peace keeping projects are just as valuable, if not more so, than killing terrorists. I simply wanted to address the flak the drone strikes have been taking especially considering recent “hacking” events.

It has to be both carrot and stick, right? I just think the Army, being an Army, is a helluva lot more stick than carrot. It goes back to the Inglorious Bastards/Lone Survivor conecpt, “They have to fear you more than they hate you” idea versus the “Let’s change hearts and minds” approach.