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OK, We Agree No Drone Strikes – What Next?
Posted by Steve Hynd on May 18th, 2009

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Noted COINdinistas David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum have an op-ed today in the NYT calling for the end of drone attacks in Pakistan on the grounds that they are entirely counter-productive. It’s an argument others outwith the COIN firmament of stars have been making for some time too, often against COINdinista pressure, although Kilcullen has been arguing this for some months.

Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.

The drone strategy is similar to French aerial bombardment in rural Algeria in the 1950s, and to the “air control” methods employed by the British in what are now the Pakistani tribal areas in the 1920s. The historical resonance of the British effort encourages people in the tribal areas to see the drone attacks as a continuation of colonial-era policies.

The drone campaign is in fact part of a larger strategic error — our insistence on personalizing this conflict with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Devoting time and resources toward killing or capturing “high-value” targets — not to mention the bounties placed on their heads — distracts us from larger problems, while turning figures like Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban umbrella group, into Robin Hoods. Our experience in Iraq suggests that the capture or killing of high-value targets — Saddam Hussein or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — has only a slight and fleeting effect on levels of violence. Killing Mr. Zarqawi bought only 18 days of quiet before Al Qaeda returned to operations under new leadership.

But Kilcullen and Exum seem to be unable to think outside the “Awakening” box in thinking what to do instead.

The goal should be to isolate extremists from the communities in which they live. The best way to do this is to adopt policies that build local partnerships. Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies must be defeated by indigenous forces — not from the United States, and not even from Punjab, but from the parts of Pakistan in which they now hide.

How this might happen they fail to explain and in all fairness that’s not the point of the op-ed – if every avenue was explored in detail, every newspaper article or blog post would be a book instead. But some short indication of how the expect “indigenous forces” in Pashtun lands to overcome the pashtunwalli honour code and declare civil war on a Pakistani Taliban movement that has increasingly become the Pashtun Liberation Front might have been useful. After all, the Pakistani military keeps the 20% or so of its Pashtun troops well out of the area of conflict precisely because it fears they wouldn’t obey orders to fire upon other Pashtuns on behalf of Punjabi or American self-interest. Without some explanation of how Kilcullen and Exum expect this Pashtun “awakening” to occur against the prevailing local customs and current affairs, their prescription takes on a hue of “you and who’s army?”

Indeed, it seems to me that the viable solutions are all non-military. The shortest term option would be to finally consign the Durand Line to history and to carve an independent Pashtunistan out of Pakistan and Afghanistan, over those two nation’s protestations. Then the Pashtuns can decide, on their own behalfs, whether they’re happy with Taliban rule. The Taliban have little or no interest beyond their own root ethnic region and both the West and the neighbours could focus on containing the rump of Al Qaeda in its safe havens through international counter-terrorism and law enforcement efforts. Still, such a solution would come with its own set of problems, not least the howls of protest from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Neither would be likely to agree to it, so it would have to happen by fiat, possibly by UN mandate (like Israel).

The other solutions involve the classic true COIN strategies – ethnic cleansing or genocide – or waiting out the Taliban’s popular support among Pashtuns until such a time as the Pashtuns themselves force their insurgency’s leaders to the negotiating table for real. They’d both take a very long time (look at Sri Lanka’s 25 year Tamil insurgency) and the collateral damage would be high. Yet one or the other seems to be the endgame current Pakistani and US startegies are really aiming for.

(Also on Newshoggers)

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