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An Open Secret: Drone Warfare In Pakistan

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Drone warfare is now one of the most fundamental features of the U.S. battle against its enemies. Just don’t any anyone in the government to talk about it.

Since 2004, the United States military has fired about 270 missiles into Pakistan since 2004, killing thousands of militants, according to the U.S. government. Dozens of so-called high-value targets have been eliminated, like al-Qaida’s No. 2, who was killed in an attack last month.

But since the CIA runs these attacks, they are secret. As a result, no one in the government is supposed to admit they’re happening.

“This is the least well-kept secret in the history of secrecy,” says Peter Bergen, director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C., which has compiled extensive data on the U.S. drone strikes.

“Everybody knows these are happening. Everybody knows the Pakistanis are involved in some way. Everybody knows we’re doing it,” Bergen says.

Dramatic Increase In Attacks

The drone strikes — part of a covert U.S. war in the northwest part of Pakistan — have changed the way the U.S. fights terrorism in the decade since the attacks of Sept. 11.

Started under the Bush administration, the strikes into Pakistan have increased fivefold under President Obama. Last year, there were 118.

What accounts for the dramatic increase? According to former U.S. officials, the Obama administration made a decision to step up the drone campaign. The technology has gotten better — drones can now hover for days at a time. As a result, the strikes are working and key militant leaders are being killed.

Peter W. Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative and a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, explains.

“In a lot of cases, they’ll track that target not just for minutes but for hours or days, getting a pattern of life — who’s coming and going from that compound, where are they? And then you get the strike,” he says.

And the strikes aren’t just against al-Qaida’s leadership. In 2008, the Bush administration broadened the campaign to include lower-ranking foot soldiers. They also started targeting groups that Pakistan saw as threats. The Obama administration did the same thing.

Risks Of Backlash

U.S. officials say the strikes are crucial to keeping al-Qaida off-balance. But that tactical success comes at a cost.

“There is the potential for backlash,” notes Frances Townsend, who served as President Bush’s homeland security adviser. “And in each case, you’re making a policy decision about the potential gain versus those risks.”

One big risk is that the attacks have fueled anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. Officials there have allowed the drone operations — but at the same time Pakistan resents the U.S. for carrying out strikes on its territory.

As a result, the U.S. and Pakistan are locked in a toxic marriage where neither partner trusts the other but walking away isn’t an option.

Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair argues it’s time to make the Pakistanis an equal partner in the strikes — putting “two hands on the trigger” — so they feel more invested in the outcome.

There is another problem: civilian deaths. It’s unclear how many innocent people have died in the strikes — between 50 and 300, depending on who’s counting. But Townsend says the secrecy of the drone campaign is a liability of sorts. Neither the U.S. nor Pakistan will admit the strikes are happening, which makes defending them almost impossible.

“I do think there’s an opportunity now for the administration to have, at least in a minimal way, some public discussion about the necessity of the tool, the care with which it is deployed, if we are to expect that the American people will continue to support such a program,” Townsend says.

Need For The ‘Knockout Punch’

For now, the U.S. government has no plans to ease up on the drone strikes, talk about them, or give Pakistan more say in how they’re done. Far from it — a couple months ago, a top security adviser to President Obama, Doug Lute, was asked about the drone strikes at a security conference. He said Osama bin Laden’s death makes the strikes even more important.

“So this is a period of turbulence in an organization which is our arch enemy. This is a period, therefore, that all military doctrine suggests you need to go for the knockout punch,” he said.

Lute acknowledged that the U.S. does need a real partnership with Pakistan. But, he said, “I’m not ready to switch gears in the next six months when we’ve got a chance of a lifetime.”

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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