What If Predator Drones Work?

The American program of using unmanned Predator drones in Pakistan doesn't seem to have a lot going for it. The program, which seeks to find and kill high-value targets such as al-Qaeda leadership, is sharply and frequently criticized for killing far more civilians than it does terrorists, for promoting anti-American rage among previously indifferent locals, and for creating diplomatic tension with the Pakistani government. The New Yorker's Jane Mayer ably documents the program's many risks here, and this study by the New America Foundation's Peter Began and Katherine Tiedemann remains the most damning critique of the program. Yet despite all this, today The New York Times reports that the CIA's drone program in Pakistan is being expanded. Why the continued reliance on a program with so many problems?

An answer may lie in a BBC interview with a Taliban detainee who claims he recently met Osama bin Laden. The detainee says the meeting was in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan where bin Laden has long been thought to be hiding. When asked why Afghanistan, the detainee responded, "Pakistan at this time is not convenient for us to stay in because a lot of our senior people are being martyred in drone attacks." If his story is true (and it may very well be false, although Juan Cole calls it "plausible"), it would suggest that the drone program does exactly what Obama has said he wants to do in this war: deny al-Qaeda a safe haven.

This wouldn't necessarily outweigh the many problems of the drone program, especially if, as critics insist, it creates more enemies than it eliminates. Kidnapped New York Times reporter David Rohde described drone strikes as killing innocent civilians but also as terrifying Taliban insurgents. If it's true that drones have indeed made Pakistan's border region inhospitable for al-Qaeda, that's certainly worth considering as an argument in their favor.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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