The Huffington Post
November 5, 2009
By Sanjeev Bery

It is time to set aside the notion that U.S. drone missile attacks in Pakistan are some kind of secret. The pretense of secrecy has saved Obama Administration officials from having to publicly defend the military tactic.

But when Pakistani college students, think tank scholars, and New York Times reporters are all talking about this issue, U.S. officials should stop pretending that there is anything classified about it.

Indeed, once one takes a closer look at the discussion around U.S. drone missile attacks, it becomes clear that the claim of government secrecy is simply a way of avoiding debate. This needs to change, because there is a strong case to be made that drone missile attacks are both immoral and deeply counter-productive. Freedom Forward, the organization I helped found, has been encouraging people to make this point directly to the Obama Administration.

The latest example of this dynamic occurred during U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan last week. As reported by Declan Walsh in The Guardian (UK), Secretary Clinton declined to respond to questions about drone missile strikes. She simply stated, “I can’t answer that question. It’s a military to military matter.”

But this “military to military matter” apparently is so secret that it includes writers for Esquire. The magazine has run two detailed articles on the topic that could not have been done without the support of U.S. military officials, government voices, and military contractors. Much of the content focuses on the unclassified drone operations in Afghanistan, but in many ways, this is a distinction without a difference. The articles discuss new drone technologies and profile Americans who carry out the remote attacks for a living.

When it helps to avoid uncomfortable questions, U.S. drone missile attacks are classified. But when information can be controlled and directed, there is always an official willing to talk off the record. This pretend secrecy needs to be challenged, and for good reason. Not only have drone missile attacks resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Pakistani civilians, but they have also increased anger at the U.S. from across Pakistani society. This is not good for long-term U.S. interests in the region.

In a narrow bean-counter sense, the attacks have likely killed a number of mid-to-high level Al Qaeda and Taliban members, though many have been replaced by new leaders. The number of civilians killed ranges from the low-end estimates of several hundred up to one thousand. New America Foundation scholars conservatively stated that one-third of those killed by U.S. drone missile strikes have been Pakistani civilians — approximately 300 innocent people. Earlier this year, a counter-insurgency adviser to General David Petraeus said that 98% of those killed were civilians — closer to 1,000.

These civilian deaths need to be acknowledged at a moral level. They also need to be considered in political terms. During Secretary Clinton’s visit last week to Pakistan, one Pakistani woman told Secretary Clinton that drone missile attacks essentially amounted to “executions without trial.” Another asked if the missile attacks were themselves a form of terrorism.

The comments hint at the anger many Pakistanis feel over these attacks. They also demonstrate the damage that the U.S. is sustaining in terms of how we are perceived. The people asking these kinds of questions are frequently drawn from Pakistan’s educated and cosmopolitan elite — not exactly a step forward for U.S. diplomacy or public relations.

There are more material costs as well. The drone missile attacks have pushed militants further into more settled parts of the country. Not only that, but the attacks also undermine a potential indigenous Pakistani consensus against militancy. The continued stream of drone-inflicted civilian deaths feeds into a long-standing Pakistani self-narrative regarding the history of U.S. political intervention in Pakistani affairs. That narrative recalls that all three rounds of Pakistani dictatorship received U.S. support.

These considerations lead to even more uncomfortable questions: Given the moral and diplomatic costs, why are Obama Administration officials continuing this practice? Do U.S. drone missile attacks offer an illusion of American military success that is politically important for the current administration?

After all, if you take drone missile attacks off the table, there is little left in this war that has the appearance of military “success.” Every time a drone missile hits a claimed target, the Obama administration can show that it is willing and able to kill terrorists. Never mind that many of the terrorists get replaced by subordinates, and never mind that the U.S. government is likely to be simultaneously negotiating with other Taliban militias.

Even though U.S. drone missile attacks kill many civilians and are politically counterproductive, it may well be that the PR costs are too great for U.S. officials to give them up. The attacks offer the illusion of military victory, even if only for a soundbite second. That’s why U.S. officials need to drop the pretend secrecy and engage the growing public debate.