Why the U.S. Still Needs to Use Drones in Pakistan

Until Islamabad can enforce the rule of law, and as long as terror cells remain operational inside the country's borders, there's no way around it.

RTR2G5EV-615.jpg Mian Kursheed/Reuters

America's covert drone war isn't what the main lines of debate in the U.S. make it out to be: It's the consequence of many decades of politics, militancy, and violence -- and that history is why both Washington and Islamabad are using drones to strike at militants. Ignoring that history to focus only on reported U.S. activity misses the point, and distracts from the real challenge posed by the double game that Pakistan has been playing.

The United States relies on drones to strike militants because it doesn't have any better options. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where most militants live and drone strikes occur, is a political wasteland with little law enforcement -- leaving policymakers with few options for pursuing the terrorists that continue to kill thousands of Pakistani civilians (and actively support the insurgency next door in Afghanistan).

For decades, the FATA were governed by an outdated British colonial law from the 19th century called the Frontier Crimes Regulations. The FCR don't allow for the normal rule of law -- rule was implemented by "political agents" (a version of the imperial viceroy) who acted as advisers for the secular tribal leaders. But when Islamabad granted the tribal areas the right to vote in 1996, they forbade the formation of political parties -- meaning any politician had to campaign as an independent. Islamists, who rallied support through the mosques and madrassas, soon marginalized any secular figures -- including the traditional tribal leadership.

It is a system seemingly designed to foster unrest & militancy -- and under the Taliban's predations the tribal leadership of the FATA has been brutally persecuted.

Islamabad has taken some halting steps to end the FATA's political isolation: late last year, President Asif Ali Zardari expanded political and legal reforms to the region, allowing political parties to field candidates for parliament. Though these reforms have not substantially altered political life in the tribal areas, they are a welcome first step toward addressing one major cause of local militancy.

To end finally the threat of Islamist militancy in Pakistan, however, requires the Pakistani government to stop supporting it.

In the midst of the Afghan civil war, in 1995, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto " capitulated to [Pakistani intelligence's] persistent requests for unlimited covert aid" to the Taliban, which she described to U.S. officials as a "pro-Pakistan force."

Islamabad then refused to help the United States apprehend Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s. By this point, decades of Pakistani elites' deliberate politicization of Islam had created a monster they could no longer control. Still, they tried, and Pakistan's intelligence service sent those militantswest to fight in Afghanistan and east to fight the Indians in Kashmir. Those militants eventually found a home in the FATA, where they could operate in a legal no-man's land.

Presented by

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

From This Author

Just In