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article imageOp-Ed: Drone Attacks, Or How Not to Fight Insurgents

By Christopher Szabo     Mar 26, 2009 in World
The new American administration of President Barack Obama is making a serious error on what he has termed the “Central Front” in the fight against terrorism.
He has sanctioned strikes by machines against the simple hill-tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan, who do not recognise the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, also called the Durand Line, after the British official who drew it. The local Pashtun people have walked these great mountains of the Suleiman and Hindu Kush ranges for time out of mind, and to them this imaginary line is quite literally neither here nor there.
They also have a strong culture of hospitality, but also have a culture of revenge. According to a Pakistani diplomat I spoke to who is descended from similar mountain tribes, the Pashtun would much prefer to kill terrorists themselves. He summarised this attitude as: “Hire a Pashtun to kill a Pashtun”, explaining that if a stranger did the killing, the whole tribe would vow revenge. It is in this context that these attacks should be seen.
The problem with the much-vaunted Predator remotely piloted aircraft, or “drone”, if you prefer, is precisely that it is a machine. It can’t see; it can’t think. Nor can it, or those controlling it tell the sheep from the goats when it comes to firing its aptly named Hellfire missile. It is simply impossible for it to tell whether there are terrorists in a village, or if the terrorists in question are at home, or if non-combatants are visiting them for tea. And Pakistanis like their tea, strong. The hospitality tradition would allow Taliban or even al-Qaida members to visit villagers as guests, making civilian casualties unavoidable.
The way Predator operators find out where the terrorists are located is reliance on advanced satellite and other intelligence hardware, and intelligence reports. And these have been known to be wrong, as in the mistaken NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999.
Beside the strangeness of attacking citizens of a U.S. ally, there is something worse in all this. That is the simple fact that it violates the most basic rule of Counter-Insurgency, or COIN, warfare, that of “winning hearts and minds.”
It is worth bearing in mind that the originator of that term, Britain’s Field Marshall Sir Gerald Templar, was largely responsible for winning the war against Malayan terrorists (1948-1960) thus proving that western democratic governments can defeat guerrillas or terrorists. To be precise, he said, "The answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people."
But democratic governments could also lose. While Sir Gerald was defeating the Communist Terrorists in Malaya, France was losing to the Viet Minh in Indochina. Two decades later, the U.S. was also defeated in South East Asia.
Of course, both France and the United States made many mistakes. But one common to both was an over-reliance on technology. The British, and let it be said, the current Pakistan Army concept, relies far more on winning over the people than can be said for the Predator advocates. The Pakistanis have long been building roads and schools in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, abutting on Afghanistan. And it is precisely this modernisation drive, notably schools for girls, that has been the main target of the militants. The Pakistanis have had some successes with these tactics, notably in Bajaur and Mohmand Agencies, and in Waziristan in 2004, while losing more than 1,000 troops in the border region, and more than 500 to targeted attacks on military personnel in the rest of Pakistan in the last 13 months.
Nor is it surprising that the Pakistan authorities are not in a hurry to kill Pashtun or Balouch tribesmen. They are, after all, Pakistani citizens. But, and here’s the rub, hearts and minds campaigns take time. In Malaya it took 12 years. Counter-Insurgency wars can’t be fought according to a timetable.
And that is why President Obama’s decision to continue with these attacks is wrong. Because every Hellfire missile, whether it kills real terrorists or not, will most definitely anger the mothers, brothers, sons or daughters of the innocent tribespeople, cynically seen by some as mere: “Collateral damage.” Every strike will embitter their hearts and enrage their minds, and add them to Al Qaida’s angry young men and women, willing to kill or maim those who, in their view, murdered their families and friends.
To paraphrase Gerald Templar, "The answer lies not in firing more missiles into the tribal areas, but in the hearts and minds of the people."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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