As the US and its allies ponder what to do about Syria, one suggestion advanced by the protagonists of armed intervention is to use unmanned drones to attack Syrian government targets. The proposal is a measure of the extraordinary success of the White House, CIA and Defense Department in selling the drone as a wonder weapon despite all the evidence to the contrary.
The attraction of the drone for President Obama and his administration five months before the presidential election is self-evident. The revelation that he personally selected targets from the top ranks of al-Qa’ida for assassination by remote control shows the President as tough and unrelenting in destroying America’s enemies. The programme is popular at home because the cost appears not to be large and, most importantly, there are no American casualties. The media uncritically buys into claims of the weapon’s effectiveness, conveniently diverting voters’ attention from the US army’s failure to defeat puny opponents in two vastly expensive campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The most striking but understated feature of the drone strikes in the North-west Frontier districts of Pakistan is that they could not take place without the co-operation of the Pakistani army and its all-powerful military intelligence branch, the ISI. Some government co-operation is essential in Yemen, too, though less so than in Pakistan because of the weakness of the Yemeni state.
The problem is that high-precision weapons still need ground-based intelligence to identify targets. In Pakistan, the ISI says privately that its agents provide the details without which the drones would not know whom to pursue and eliminate. The difficulty for those guiding the drones from command posts far away has not changed much since “precision bombing” in the Second World War or the far more accurate missile strikes in Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Large, immovable facilities or power stations are easy to identify; individuals are not. In 2003, President Bush brought forward the start of the bombing and missile strikes because US intelligence believed it knew the exact location of Saddam Hussein in south Baghdad. This was destroyed by missiles, but research after the war showed that Saddam had never been near the place.
Up-to-the minute intelligence about who is in what house, and when they are there, requires a network of local agents who can communicate their information immediately. It is very unlikely that the ISI would allow the CIA to have this sort of network in Pakistan. The crucial information that enabled the US to find and identify Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad reportedly came from the ISI itself.
Of course, an assassination target might be stupid enough to give away his or her position by using a mobile, satellite phone or some other form of electronic communication. But few insurgent groups today are likely to give away their position so easily.
The result of reliance on the ISI is that it is Pakistani military intelligence officers, and not President Obama or his security and military staff, who really determine what sort of person is killed by the unmanned drones. This is in keeping with Pakistan’s cynical but successful approach to dealing with the US since 9/11. This is to be, at one and the same time, its best ally and worst enemy.
Unmanned droned strikes are all about American domestic politics rather than about the countries where they are used. They cater to illusions of power, giving Americans a sense that their technical prowess is unparalleled, despite the Pentagon’s inability to counter improvised explosive devices, which are no more than old-fashioned mines laid in or beside roads. The drones have even been presented as being more humanitarian than other forms of warfare, simply by claiming that any dead males of military age killed in a strike must have been enemy combatants.
The downside to these exaggerated successes is that the White House and the US security agencies believe more of their own propaganda than is good for them. Ramshackle insurgent movements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen are not like regular armies, in which the elimination of officers or senior cadres might be a crippling blow to the organisation. Just as important, in the long term, assassination campaigns do not win wars, and they create as many enemies as they destroy.