Learning the lessons: 11 years of drones in Pakistan

The case of Pakistan, after a decade long drone war, shows how the appeal of drones as a “cost free” form of warfare is misguided.

Esther Kersley
19 June 2015
 Imran Khan's Pakistan Movt. for Justice protests against US drone strikes.

London: Imran Khan's Pakistan Movt. for Justice protests against US drone strikes. Demotix/Mark Kerrison. All rights reserved.This week marks 11 years since the first reported US drone strike in Pakistan. Since 2004, the US has launched more than 419 strikes in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) as part of its global war on terror. Whilst much debate has focused on the ethics, legality and civilian costs of this new technology, little attention has been given to the broader repercussions drones have had on Pakistan as a whole and how they have shaped the country in the past decade.

New research into the impact of drone strikes on terrorist behaviour, published this week, shows that drones are having a far wider and more damaging impact on civilian populations beyond those directly killed in the drone strikes themselves. The report, by Dr Paul Gill (UCL) commissioned by the Remote Control project, analyses data on drone strikes and terrorist attacks in Pakistan between 2004 and 2013 at the monthly, weekly and daily levels, finding that terrorist reprisals following a drone strike are disproportionally more likely to target civilians.

This is because, although terror groups slow down their activities in the immediate aftermath of a drone strike for basic security reasons, when they do re-emerge the attack that follows will likely be one that doesn’t necessitate the lengthy planning of high value targets, due to the damage done to the terrorist group by a drone strike. The focus instead will be on “softer targets”, i.e. civilians, leading to an increase in fatality rates.  When assessing the human costs of drone warfare it is these indirect victims – those who die in terrorist reprisals – that must be factored in.

Beyond terror attacks, drones are having a broader and more profound impact on Pakistani society in other ways too. A report last year from Dr Wali Aslam (University of Bath) found that drone strikes, whist pursuing some “high value” targets and decreasing the number of fighters in the tribal areas, has caused militants to relocate to other parts of the country, thus displacing rather than eliminating terrorists.

In turn, this relocation has brought an increase in radicalisation, violence and crime to the regions of Pakistan where the militants have resettled, bringing increased instability to areas such as the Punjab, Karachi and Kurram Agency. Furthermore, the deeply unpopular nature of drones in Pakistan, caused by the civilian casualties, psychological damage and the infringement of sovereignty they entail, has led to growing anti-American sentiment that has provided an effective recruitment tool for extremists, fuelling rather than minimising radicalisation.

As the UK and US increasingly rely on drones in their air campaign against Islamic State and as a growing number of states are now developing armed drones (the global export market for drones is predicted to grow nearly three-fold over the next decade), we must learn the lessons of Pakistan.

Drones, like other forms of remote warfare, may be technologically advanced but in reality they are no more effective at ending conflict than boots on the ground were. Both seek to solve insecurity with a military solution, failing to address the root causes of conflict, or to devise any long-term strategy for what comes next. It is the covert nature of remote control warfare - operating in the shadows with minimal transparency, accountability or oversight - that make this warfare even more concerning.

The case of Pakistan, after a decade long drone war, shows how the appeal of drones as a “cost free” form of warfare is misguided, failing to take into consideration their long term implications. In Pakistan, drones have not only been an ineffective counter-terrorism strategy but they have also had far reaching, negative repercussions on wider society.  It is these long term consequences – in many cases still largely unknown – that will prove to be the most damaging for any long-term, sustainable resolution to conflict.

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