Are drones the solution or the problem?

The U.S. is increasing its use of drones to fight terrorism, but is this wise?

Ian J Byrne

Last week, an al-Qaeda terror plot was reportedly uncovered in Pakistan. The attack was aimed at Europe with Britain, France and Germany named as potential targets. While the plot was only in the planning phase, it would have been similar to the commando-style attack carried out in 2008 in Mumbai.
Central to the plot were eight Germans and two Britons who were reported to have been training in North Waziristan, in PakistanâÄôs Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the remote, mountainous region alongside the border with Afghanistan. North Waziristan is the operational base of al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani network and other smaller militant Islamist groups. Purportedly the 10 Europeans had received paramilitary training and had been in contact with al-Qaeda officials.
Since the initial reports, the Eiffel Tower was evacuated once due to a bomb threat, and the U.S. Department of State has issued a travel alert for Americans traveling in Europe.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Pakistani officials said that all eight of the German militants linked to the terror plot had been killed in a missile strike launched from an unmanned aerial drone Monday. One of the two Britons had been killed in another drone strike in early September.
It goes without saying that it is rather impressive that those eight German militants were identified and killed in such a short span of time. We should take note of the awesome, yet terrifying, power exercised by the CIAâÄôs covert drone program.
September saw 22 drone strikes, the most in one month since the covert program started in 2004. Along with the eight Germans killed earlier in the week, on September 25 the head of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sheihk al-Fateh, was killed in a drone strike in Northern Waziristan. The heightened number of strikes in September is due to the fact American intelligence officials were made aware of the potential terrorist plots in Europe.
NATOâÄôs International Security Assistance Force is not allowed to operate in Pakistan. ISAFâÄôs presence in Afghanistan has effectively pushed out the movers and shakers of al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. However, all al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban had to do was move across the border to continue business as usual.
PakistanâÄôs Inter-Services Intelligence âÄî think of them as the CIAâÄôs equivalent but autonomous from the government âÄî has been known to keep cozy with the Pakistani Taliban in order to serve its interests in Afghanistan. The United States has been faced with the inability to go after militants within Pakistan while also dealing with a Pakistani government that is reluctant to go after militants in FATA as well.
Drone strikes have been effective in killing top-level militants. More than two dozen al-Qaeda and Taliban officials have been killed in the strikes. In August 2009, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed. However, before we start high-fiving one another over dead terrorists, we must take into account some of the issues that arise from continuing the drone program at this pace.
While the drone strikes have struck fear and paranoia into the hearts and minds of militants, it has ignited anti-U.S. resentment. Would-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, cited the drone strikes as his main reason for traveling to Pakistan to receive training from militants and later attempting to detonate a crude car bomb in New York City.
There have been legal challenges saying the covert operations are illegal because of the lack of disclosure and ambiguity of whether they break the rules of war.
The drones are operated from seven bases within the U.S. Moral questions have been raised about allowing people to operate a vehicle in the U.S. halfway around the world in a war setting.
My question is, given the effectiveness of the drone program in Pakistan, how will it continue to expand, and how will our views of warfare change?
The Iraq War was a major military operation with the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of troops along with all the equipment they needed. Afghanistan has been similar. However, with the subsequent troubles the U.S. has faced in both conflicts, how hesitant will we be to conducting large-scale operations when the U.S. sees it in its interest to do so? Will the U.S. simply deploy a few drones to conduct surveillance and strikes?
I ask this question because the use of drone strikes is trending this way. This year has seen more drone strikes, 79 so far, than 2009 saw all together, 53.
We use the drone strikes as a means to destroy an enemy with whom we are at war: militant Islamist terrorists. Can we expect drone strikes against other terrorist networks across the world anytime soon?
Al-Shabab in Somalia proved its transnational threat after it planned and carried out suicide attacks during the World Cup final in July in Uganda. Just Wednesday, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for two attacks in Sanaa, Yemen. One included an attack on a British embassy convoy.
The threat of terrorism is real. Drones are a quick fix, but are they a viable long-term solution?