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Column: Drones Remain Our Best Option in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas

President Obama’s second term begins amid intense criticism of the drone strikes being conducted by the United States in Pakistan. Much of this criticism is based on claims that drones are doing more harm than good.

A recent Stanford/NYU study concluded that drones cause excessive civilian casualties and frequently fail to hit leadership targets, and that the presence of drones spreads fear and anxiety among the civilian population, disrupts civilians’ daily lives, limits public gatherings and disrupts access to education. Other critics cite the Taliban’s detention and execution of suspected “spies” who assist drone targeting.

Like many such studies, the NYU/Stanford one did not attempt to interview a single member of the U.S. military. Had it done so, it might have learned that (at least in Afghanistan) there have been instances of Taliban or al-Qaida forces killing civilians and placing their bodies at the site of drone attacks to increase civilian casualty counts. Yet the study’s only attempt to gain the government’s perspective was a letter requesting a meeting with the National Security Council. Because the council did not reply within a month, the U.S. government’s perspective was excluded from the report.

The report’s discussion of civilian casualties adopts the highest estimate offered by any of the three sources that compile such information — the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. And it consistently describes civilian casualties in the aggregate since the beginning of the drone program rather than examining recent trends. Even the bureau estimates that only seven civilians have been killed in about 60 strikes conducted over the last 13 months. These same strikes are estimated to have killed 250 to 400 militants.

Any alternative use of force against Taliban or al-Qaida forces would be likely to cause many more civilian casualties.

Even if drones continue to cause some civilian casualties and have other negative effects, the question of whether continuing the drone campaign is a good policy decision cannot be answered without carefully considering the alternatives available.

There are four obvious options for dealing with the Taliban/al-Qaida presence in the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan.

One is to accept their presence and control of that area and cease operations against them. But this course of action wouldn’t address most of the concerns about drones.

Taliban control would be far more disruptive to the daily lives of those living in the tribal region than drones are. Public meetings, unless authorized by the Taliban, would be rare and extremely dangerous. The Taliban’s shooting of a 14-year-old girl for attending school speaks volumes about access to education under Taliban rule. And the detention and execution of “undesirable” individuals would continue, albeit under the guise of heresy rather than spying. Also, ceding the territory to Taliban control would provide the Afghan Taliban with a safe haven from which to continue its operations against American and Afghan forces across the border.

The second option would be for Pakistan’s military to assert control over the region. However, its last serious attempt to do so — the Swat Valley campaign of 2009 — utilized armored vehicles, artillery and airstrikes to try to dislodge about 5,000 Taliban fighters. This resulted in the displacement of more than 1 million civilians who fled the army’s indiscriminate firepower.

Last year, mere rumors that the Pakistani military was planning a campaign in Waziristan caused thousands to flee. Pakistan lacks both the desire and the capacity to pursue another campaign to gain control of the tribal areas, and any attempt to conduct such a campaign would be a humanitarian nightmare for the civilians who live there.

The third option would be for the United States to use ground troops and special forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations in the tribal areas. Even if Pakistan were willing to publicly consent to American ground forces on its territory, an issue that it has carefully finessed in the context of drone operations, it is unlikely that this option would alleviate any of the frequently voiced concerns about the use of drones.

If operations in Afghanistan are any guide, using ground troops would result in as many civilian casualties or more than the current drone campaign and would be more deeply unpopular in Pakistan — not to mention that it would result in higher U.S. casualties. Ground operations in territory controlled by the Taliban would still rely heavily on drone surveillance, and most raids would occur at night.

Such operations in Afghanistan were so unpopular and disruptive of daily life that President Hamid Karzai insisted that continued Afghan cooperation with the U.S. was contingent on Afghan control over night raids.

The final option is the continued use of drones. Even according to the least favorable numbers presented by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drones have effectively disrupted the leadership structure of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan by killing scores of senior leaders and operational commanders. And the drones’ constant presence continues to deny the Taliban a safe haven in which it can train and organize its forces for operations in Afghanistan. Most important, drones have done this while consistently improving their accuracy and reducing civilian casualties.

After examining the alternatives, it is clear that drones remain the best option available to minimize the negative effects of the conflict on civilians while continuing to disrupt the Taliban and deny it control of territory in the tribal areas.

Michael W. Lewis teaches international law and the law of war at Ohio Northern University’s College of Law. He is a co-author of The War on Terror and the Laws of War: A Military Perspective.