Before rushing to judge drones as a sign of the coming robot apocalypse, we should think for a moment about the alternatives: prolonged on-the-ground engagements that attempt a muddled combination of killing and befriending in a completely foreign and even unknowable society – a contradictory and ultimately futile exercise that makes no one safer.
In recent weeks TRS Catherine Connolly and Matt Wahnsiedler presented two opposing views of the morality of US drone strikes on terrorist targets. Where Connolly has pointed to the strikes as evidence of America’s lost moral compass, Wahnsiedler questioned her argument for not taking into account the internal moral logic of war. But an interesting article published in 2010 raises another issue: what if we have overestimated the homogeneity of Pakistani – even Pashtun – opposition to the strikes?
Brian Glyn Williams, writing in the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, points to evidence that in some sections of Pashtun society, support from drone strikes on Taliban targets is high. His sources include three separate polls that showed either direct support for the strikes, or support for the Pakistani state versus the Taliban insurgency. One such poll – the first of its kind in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, according to Williams – was conducted in 2009 by Pakistani think-tank the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy. It found that people actually living in areas that had come under Taliban rule – where they have closed girls’ schools and executed locals – are more inclined to support the American drone strikes. A few of the “unexpected results”: only 45 percent of Pashtuns questioned felt that drone strikes brought “fear and terror to the common people,” 60 percent said the militants were damaged by the strikes, 70 percent said that the Pakistanis should carry out their own strikes against the militants.
Williams also quotes extensively from other Pashtun supporters of the drone attacks, including one who wrote to the Pakistani Daily Times, “they want al Qaeda along with the Taliban burnt to ashes on the soil of Waziristan through relentless drone attacks. The drone attacks, they believe, are the one and only ‘cure’ for these anti-civilization creatures and the US must robustly administer them…The people of Waziristan, including tribal leaders, women and religious people, asked me to convey in categorical terms to the US the following in my column. Your new drone attack strategy is brilliant, i.e. one attack closely followed by another. After the first attack the terrorists cordon off the area and none but the terrorists are allowed on the spot. Another attack at that point kills so many of them. Excellent! Keep it up!”
And it seems the Pakistani government, at least, is listening. They have begun using unarmed Italian-made drones for surveillance, and have begun manufacturing drones of their own, according to Williams. Why would the Pakistani government want to get its hands on technology it so fiercely criticizes the Americans for using? Maybe because it works.
And despite the shadowy, menacing, reputation that the drones have in the popular imagination, some have argued they are actually a more humane – even gentler – way of fighting war. In his book, The Better Angels of our Nature, Harvard professor and psychologist Steven Pinker claims that the Western appetite for destruction of foreign lands is, contrary to what many claim, actually diminishing, not increasing. Drones are evidence of this newfound squeamishness, Pinker argues, rather than evidence of our increased desire to kill without consequence. Pinker quotes political scientist Joshua Goldstein who argues that the February 2010 missile strike that mistakenly targeted ten innocent civilians was evidence not of the bloodiness of American policy, but rather its opposite: the news media gave extensive coverage to the event and portrayed the event as significant. Ultimately, the US military commander in Afghanistan offered “a profuse apology” to the President of Afghanistan. Goldstein says: “The point is not that killing ten civilians is OK, but rather that in any previous war, even a few years ago, this kind of civilian death would barely have caused a ripple of attention. Civilian deaths, in sizable numbers, used to be universally considered a necessary and inevitable, if perhaps unfortunate, by-product of war. That we are entering an era when these assumptions no longer apply is good news indeed.”
At the heart of this debate is a fundamental question about the way war is waged. Those who argue that drones counteract all efforts at winning hearts and minds do not answer a very crucial question: is it possible, in the context of a conflict, to win over people’s hearts and minds – if the very fact of conflict means that homes will be razed, bombs will be dropped and bullets fired? Who is your audience? Can “they” (assuming it even is one homogenous group) ever be won over? The implications here for counter-terrorism policy, and even warfare in general, are immense, and will not be resolved here. But before rushing to judge drone strikes as a sign of the coming robot apocalypse, we should think for a moment about the alternatives: prolonged on-the-ground engagements that attempt a muddled combination of killing and befriending in a completely foreign and even unknowable society – a contradictory and ultimately futile exercise that makes no one safer.