Drones: Nation-Unbuilding in Pakistan and the US

Stanford’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and NYU’s Global Justice Clinic have joined the debate on drones with a long report presenting what it argues are the counter-productive aspects of drone strikes. It argues:

  • The US has downplayed the number of civilian casualties
  • Even short of drone deaths, those living under drone surveillance suffer other harm from them, most notably terror
  • Evidence that drone strikes have made the US safer is ambiguous
  • Drone strikes undermine rule of law

To remedy these problems and bring about a real debate, the report calls for more transparency from the Administration so we can debate the real effects of the drone war, and more discipline on the part of reporters in reporting drone strikes.

Some of what the report describes will be familiar to regular readers of this site. The report is most important, I think, for its discussion of the way drones undermine society in both Pakistan and the US.

Unbuilding Pakistan

While some of this has been discussed with regards to Pakistan (and Yemen), the report cites FATA residents (who were interviewed outside of the FATA) describing drones impacting commerce.

One college student from North Waziristan explained that “Because of these drones, people have stopped coming or going to the bazaars. . . . [I]t has affected trade to Afghanistan.”578 The owner of a shop selling toys in a North Waziristan market stated that ever since the drone strikes began, “It’s very hard for us, we just barely get by [with what we make in the shop]. . . . People are afraid of dying. They are scared of drones.”579 One man, who once owned a car that he used to transport goods to and from the rest of Pakistan, said that in the past he would agree to be hired for 200 rupees a day. 580 Now, however, because of drones and the risks associated with their presence, “nobody is even willing to work for 500 rupees.”581

And the Jirga system of problem resolution.

One of the most troubling community-wide consequences of the fear of gathering is, in several interviewees’ views, the erosion of the jirga system, a community-based conflict resolution process that is fundamental to Pashtun society.584 Khalil Khan, the son of a community leader killed in the March 17, 2011 jirga strike, explained that “everybody after the strike seems to have come to the conclusion that we cannot gather together in large numbers and we cannot hold a jirga to solve our problems.”585 Noor Khan, whose father Malik Daud Khan presided over that jirga and was killed, confirmed this account:

Everybody is scared, especially the elders. . . [T]hey can’t get together and discuss problems . . . [I]f a problem occurs, they can’t resolve it, because they are all scared that, if we get together, we will be targeted again. . . . Everybody, all the mothers, all the wives, they have told their people not to congregate together in a jirga. . . . [T]hey are pleading to them not to, as they fear they will be targeted. 586

The jirga is a vitally important part of Pashtun communal and political life, providing opportunities for community input, conflict resolution, and egalitarian decisionmaking.587 Hampering its functions could have serious implications for the communal order, especially in an area already devastated by death and destruction.

In addition, the report focuses on how drones encourage Pakistan to become even less democratic.

The focus on drones also risks undermining Pakistan’s development by incentivizing undemocratic decision-making and fostering instability. In 2009, Anne Patterson, US Ambassador to Pakistan, discussed the risks of the US drone strategy in a cable sent to the Department of State. She noted, “Increased unilateral operations in these areas risk destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis within Pakistan without finally achieving the goal [of eliminating the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership].” 766 Pakistan High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Wajid Shamsul Hasan told The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ):

What has been the whole outcome of these drone attacks is, that you have rather directly or indirectly contributed to destabilizing or undermining the democratic government. Because people really make fun of the democratic government– when you pass a resolution against drone attacks in the parliament, and nothing happens. The Americans don’t listen to you, and they continue to violate your territory. 767

The US strikes have also contributed to the delegitimization of NGOs that are perceived as Western, or that receive US aid, including those providing much-needed services, such as access to water and education, and those administering the polio vaccine; this perception has been exploited by Taliban forces. 768

While there are plenty of other factors undermining democracy in Pakistan which deserve discussion, this report is one of the first that focuses on how drones lead to a decline in credibility in Pakistan’s government, while destabilizing the already unstable FATA.

Unbuilding the US

At the same time, the report questions the effects of drones on our own country, particularly in terms of democratic accountability.

The ways in which the US has used drones in the context of its targeted killing policies has facilitated an undermining of the constraints of democratic accountability, and rendered resort to lethal force easier and more attractive to policymakers. The decision to use military force must be subject to rigorous checks-and-balances; drones, however, have facilitated the use of killing as a convenient option that avoids the potential political fallout from US casualties and the challenges posed by detention. Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, stated: “[The Obama administration’s] policy is to take out high-value targets, versus capturing high-value targets. They are not going to advertise that, but that’s what they are doing.” 792


A combat veteran of Iraq explained why drones may alter the calculus of warfare: “[t]here’s something important about putting your own sons and daughters at risk when you choose to wage war as a nation. We risk losing that flesh-and-blood investment if we go too far down this road.” 795 A 2011 British Defense Ministry study of drones raises these challenging questions:

If we remove the risk of loss from the decision-makers’ calculations when considering crisis management options, do we make the use of armed force more attractive? Will decision-makers resort to war as a policy option far sooner than previously? 796

Peter Singer insightfully describes how these questions also affect democratic accountability: “when politicians can avoid the political consequences of the condolence letter—and the impact the military casualties have on voters and on the news media— they no longer treat the previously weighty matters of war and peace the same way…. [drones are] short-circuiting the decision-making process for what used to be the most important choice a democracy could make.” 797


In 1848, President Abraham Lincoln warned about the peril of granting such unrestrained power to the executive:

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose and you allow him to make war at pleasure. 799

With policymakers making critical decisions about US policy outside the public’s view, and an utter lack of any real transparency and accountability,800 the rule of law is undermined and a democratic deficit created.

Of course, many military people will say this is a benefit. I have no problem with keeping our men and women out of danger.

The problem is when you combine these two effects: if drone strikes destabilize already volatile regions and delegitimize what partners we have, it will likely lead to more instability in the long run.

These issues are part of what I was trying to get at in these two posts. Let’s hope that with such institutions as Stanford and NYU raising similar issues, we can finally include these larger issues in the discussion about drones.

11 replies
  1. BSbafflesbrains says:

    I still don’t understand how National Sovereignty isn’t the big issue. If we flew a piloted A-10 Warthog into Pakistan and shot missiles at “suspected” terrorists it would violate their sovereignty. How is it acceptable for the World (U.N. included) just because we remove the human pilot from the plane and put him in a remote location. Can Iran send an armed drone to Israel?

  2. What Constitution says:

    Noting the origin of this report as being Stanford and NYU law schools, just how is this going to be tossed off as biased by the Serious Pundits? I know — it will be “because” those institutions are such known leftist environments. After all, isn’t Stanford where that Hoover Institute spews its leftist economic bile, and that wacko Condoleeza Rice was/is?

    It will happen. After all, some very similar conclusions were reached by career Pentagon generals in a report provided to Rumsfeld back in 2004 — “they don’t ‘hate us for our freedoms’, they hate us for our policies” — and that somehow fell off the radar pretty quick.

    So this must, just must, be a misguided leftist shrill Unamurikin diatribe, right? And indeed, am I correct in understanding that the last paragraph of this Stanford/NYU schtick actually quotes none other than Glenn Greenwald, asking his standard attention-grabbing irrelevancy question of if the President can assassinate anybody on his own whim, what can’t he do? Sheesh, like that’s an important thought.

    Obviously, we must keep this up until they like us, then we can leave.

  3. transparency, aww says:

    Or if you don’t want to turn into a bleached skeleton waiting for transparency from this duplicitous administration, the other way to get a full accounting is a UNSC referral of war crimes charges to the International Criminal Court. Pakistan has already charged aggression, a crime against peace, and planned and programmatic US killing of civilians make this a crime of concern to the international community – as Putin said, “No one is safe.” The US would veto the referral, of course, but it could then followed up with a supportive Uniting for Peace resolution in the GA.

  4. OrionATL says:

    “… Of course, many military people will say this is a benefit. I have no problem with keeping our men and women out of danger…”

    i do – have a problem!

    soldiers are volunteers. soldiers are paid to do the work they do. they understand the possible dire consequences of their decision to enter this line of work.

    their protection is not one of the higher policy goals a nation, even its military, can or should have.

    we routinely order soldiers into situations in which they are likely to be wounded or killed.

    the arguments made for “protection of soldiers”, e.g., against wikileaks, for drone use, rationalizing misinforming the citizenry,

    are merely rhetorical cover which allows civilian and military politicians to pursue goals that may be unwise and harmful to the national interest and to national security.

    the assassination of awlaki and other american citizens, the endless detention of other nations’ civilians known to be weakly connected to terrorism, the excessive, terroristic use of drones are examples of actions which undermine american constitutional and international law, but which can be publicly defended by our leaders on the vague, specious grounds that doing so protects the safety of “our boys”.

    all the while those same leaders are sending soldiers by the tens of thousands on missions that may be unnecessary and harmful over time periods now measured in decades.

    drone use in public argument is merely a symptom of the lawlessness in which our national leaders now openly engage.

    in the near future, the same category of arguments will doubtless be employed to justify the use of drones domestically despite drones tendency to generate gross violations of our constitutional right to privacy.

  5. shermhed says:

    “Noting the origin of this report as being Stanford and NYU law schools, just how is this going to be tossed off as biased by the Serious Pundits? I know — it will be “because” those institutions are such known leftist environments. After all, isn’t Stanford where that Hoover Institute spews its leftist economic bile, and that wacko Condoleeza Rice was/is?”

    I was going to make a comment about how we can’t trust anything that comes out of Stanford with some less than pithy observations…then somebody beat me to the punch.

    I saw the announcement on a corporate website the other day, letting all of us good Imperial Citizens know about how another company was going to start making UAV’s that are capable of being loaded out with small arms packages, and are totally awesome for the American skies! The most disturbing thing about the press release was the use of the term “warfighter” instead of “soldier” or “drone”. Both were equated with each other, as in one “warfighter” was on the ground, needing protection/cover fire from the other “warfighter” hovering thousands of feet in the air. The press release did use the word “soldier” once; it was in the context of a “soldier helping civilians on the ground” after a natural disaster. The “warfighter” UAV/drone in this scenario was only there to help give the “soldier” help in finding injured civilians.

    And this is how militarism seeps into every day life. The folks in the MIC decide to do a quick change with words, where “warfighter” can designate a living being OR a machine while “soldier” is a term used strictly for humanitarian and/or interventionist efforts. See what they did there? You can’t say anything bad about drones because you are denigrating the empire’s “warfighters”. And what kind of scum would ever say anything bad about a “soldier”? Only somebody who hates people who lived through a natural disaster, that’s who!!!1!!

    No criticism, no harm, no foul.

  6. jerryy says:

    I am a bit uncertain about yoiur meaning of part of your post…

    Including the snippet from President Lincoln about how allowing the president to wage war as (s)he decides make it clear there does need to be consequences, the lives of our citizens are intimately tied to this. Because lots of folks do wish to keep soldiers safe, (as you note you have no problem keeping men and women out of danger) seemingly doing so does give the leaders, notably the president, an easy claim to say they can in essence war without fear of consequence because the lives of citizens are no longer tied to the issue.

    Am I understanding this correctly? Or, did I miss the meaning you intended?

    One sided warfare is a fast way to tyranny. I recall one story from studying WWII that after the Allies went into Germany, one US Army captain made the citizens of a town (I think it was Dresden, but it could have been any of the others, this is a many years old story) made them march through one of the Gulag type internment camps by the town, forcing them to look at the terrible remains of the prisoners that were dead and the conditions they endured. The town folks claimed not to know about anything that happened. I guess they were safe, thinking no one would call them to account.

  7. mzchief says:

    OT– The confirmation of the fact and how each person is “databased” in detail and tracked geospatially in real-time via “The Cloud” occurred for me when a person applying for a job was forced to use social media as a “front end” for a job application. The dossiers of those who don’t use computer systems can still be populated with data from the harvesting of metadata flowing across the TelSatCo systems including that coming across the RF connections presented by robots/computerized equipment doing data capture. Are you fired up?!

  8. harpie says:

    “The report is most important, I think, for its discussion of the way drones undermine society in both Pakistan and the US.”

    I great point, well made. Thanks for fleshing that out.

    A related article [about building the arms industry]:

    Mapping Drone Proliferation: UAVs in 76 Countries; Global Research; 9/18/12

    about this [GAO] report: Agencies Could Improve Information Sharing and End-Use Monitoring on Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Exports [pdf]

    “Currently, there are over 50 countries developing more than 900 different UAV systems. This growth is attributed to countries seeing the success of the United States with UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan and deciding to invest resources into UAV development to compete economically and militarily in this emerging area.”
    The report states that “the use of UAVs by foreign parties to gather information on U.S. military activities has already taken place” and “the significant growth in the number of countries that have acquired UAVs, including key countries of concern, has increased the threat to the United States.”
    Despite this, the report states “the U.S. government has determined that selected transfers of UAV technology support its national security interests”, thus highlighting the contradiction at the heart of current arms control measures. ‘Private sector representatives’ told the reports authors that “UAVs are one of the most important growth sectors in the defense industry and provide significant opportunities for economic benefits if U.S. companies can remain competitive in the global UAV market.” [emphasis added]
    [The report] reveals that between 2005– 2010, the US approved over $380m of drone exports. [emphasis added]

    Also, this is O/T, but in case you hadn’t seen it:
    Timeline: A Guantanamo Death Foretold, about Adnan Latif; Cora Currier; ProPublica; 9/25/12

  9. Casual Observer says:

    Reading the report now. There is something new here (to me, at least) that you very correctly highlight–the impact of drone warfare on social institutions–completely apart from death and injury to individual victims. The authors are making a good case that vital social and economic institutions are simply being hammered down–again, quite beyond and above the physical death/injury issue. Markets, schools, religious functions, and perhaps most critically jirgas are all casualties. Thus creating a dysfunctional, poisoned, cultural/social landscape in which militant radicalism can thrive.

    I don’t know if any earlier studies also hit this note, but this aspect of the study is a real eye-opener.

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