How Drones Changed the Game in Pakistan

Washington's most powerful weapon has given it a strong bargaining position from which to find a political solution.

Regardless of what the news agencies in Pakistan claim about the negative effects of drone strikes, the weapon is proving to be a game changer for the U.S. war on terrorism. And surprisingly, the Pakistani Army quietly admits to this fact. Just the way Stinger missiles shifted the balance of power in favor of the United States in the 1980s, drones are producing the same results.

The critics of unmanned strikes, who claim that drones are contributing to growing radicalization in Pakistan, haven’t looked around enough—or they would realize that much of the radicalization already was established by the Taliban in the 1990s. The real tragedy is that it is acceptable for the Taliban to radicalize and kill, but it is considered a breach of sovereignty for the United States, in pursuit of those radicalizing Pakistan’s people, to do the same.

There is so much protest over the drones because the media reports about them are biased. Although people on ground in war zones contend that the drone strikes have very few civilian casualties and, with time, have become extremely precise, the media presents quite a different story to boost its ratings.

Many in Pakistan, especially in the army, understand the positive impact of this weapon. Drones are coming in handy for two reasons: their precision and psychological effect. Many analysts of this subject have been concerned only with the military aspect, such as whether or not drones are precise enough and the casualties they incur. But part of what works in favor of the United States is the psychological impact—the fear that drones have instilled in the militants. The fact that the United States might strike day or night, inside the militant compound or outside while traveling in the convoys, works to deter militants and restrict their operations. This tilts the balance of power in favor of the United States.

Most of the people in the Pakistani Army whom I interviewed on the subject were positive about the drone strikes and their direct correlation with a decrease in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The majority focused on the psychological impact of the drones and how they have put militants on the run, forcing them to sleep under trees at night, though it must be said that army officials showed some concern about cases in which the same psychological impact is experienced by civilians.

Locals I talked to are frustrated over the fear that they might get hit by a drone if the militants are hiding in their neighborhood. But this frustration may have a positive impact as it motivates civilians to flush out and close doors to militants who seek refuge in their areas.

Surprisingly, there isn’t as much anti-Americanism as one would suspect in areas where the United States is conducting drone strikes, largely because the locals are fed up with the influx of militants in their areas and have suffered because of terrorism. However, urban centers, which have suffered the least from terrorism, are far more radicalized and anti-American. Hence, we see large anti-drone rallies in the cities of Punjab, where people have little first-hand experience with drones. The anti-American lot in these places will start a rally for any reason at all as long as they get to burn a few American flags.

Pakistan’s army remains worried about the domestic political repercussions of drone strikes. The army has been weakened already by its rift with the civilian government, and increasing pressure from the United States likely will continue that trend. With a low approval rating, the army is nervous about dealing with the growing sentiment against drone strikes, no matter how effective they have been recently. The Pakistan People’s Party also is worried, having taken blows from the judiciary and the opposition. Recent media reports claiming a secret, backdoor deal between the Pakistan People’s Party government and the United States over the drone strikes have further delegitimized the party.

These concerns about the civilian impact of drones are genuine, and the United States will have to address them. Drone operators must become more precise and accurate in their targeting and intelligence gathering. This can be done only through unconditional cooperation with Pakistan, which requires being sensitive to that country’s domestic political conditions.

Pakistan and the United States also need to be careful about drone strikes possibly pushing militants deeper into Pakistani cities. Drones will be useless if security forces are unable to stop a migration of militants into urban centers. Likewise, the United States will have serious challenges gaining permission for drone strikes outside tribal areas without improvements in diplomatic relations.

While drones are successful today, the United States must remember that it will be only a matter of time before militants find a way to hide from unmanned attacks. As such, drone operations ultimately must be accompanied by a political solution. The United States finds itself in a stronger bargaining position due to the use of drones, and it must make good use of this opportunity.

Hussain Nadim is a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.