Pakistan: Drone attacks and a clumsy army, or, This is no way to run a counterinsurgency

Let’s connect two dots in ways I haven’t seen connected, although the link is so clear it must have been made before. First, in today’s New York Times, David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum deplore the overuse of remote drone aircraft to bomb targets in Pakistan:

Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.

The drone strategy is similar to French aerial bombardment in rural Algeria in the 1950s, and to the “air control” methods employed by the British in what are now the Pakistani tribal areas in the 1920s. The historical resonance of the British effort encourages people in the tribal areas to see the drone attacks as a continuation of colonial-era policies.

Second, in today’s issue of Dawn, the latest bland account of mass chaos inflicted on the population of Swat by a Pakistani army that, to its credit, is finally taking Taliban insurgents seriously — but whose WWII-era tactics are frightening and infuriating to hundreds of thousands of displaced innocents:

Pakistan’s military said ‘intense’ battles had broken out Sunday as it advanced on a key Taliban stronghold in a fierce offensive that has scattered more than a million terrified civilians.

…Kanju town is just two kilometres from Mingora’s outskirts, signalling an imminent advance on Mingora itself, where thousands of civilians are believed to be cowering behind locked doors without food, water or medical care.

The contrast with Afghanistan is stark. And it’s kind of a seriously non-trivial problem that such disparate tactics are being pursued in Pakistan and Afghanistan, because as everybody knows, a mess in the former country is synonymous with a mess in the latter.

So it is worse than useless — it is self-deluding — for Western powers, the Obama White House first among them, to pursue some exquisitely delicate counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, with neighbourhood patrols, lots of civilian development projects and a concerted strategy of skating the bad guys offside by getting into the population’s good books, if just over the mountains the U.S. and its biggest, most feckless regional ally are pursuing a multi-pronged strategy of chaos, death and resentment.

Is there anything that could make this worse? Sure. The Americans could start to try to rush things in Afghanistan. An unnerving blog post from Joe Klein suggests that may be part of the reason behind the recent sacking of the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, David McKiernan. Klein cites the Washington Post:

One senior government official involved in Afghanistan policy said McKiernan was overly cautious in creating U.S.-backed local militias, a tactic that Petraeus had employed when he was the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

“It’s way too modest,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We don’t have 2009 to experiment in Wardak province,” where one such militia has been set up. “I think we’ve got about two years in this mission. The trend lines better start swinging in our direction or we’re going to lose the international community and we’re going to lose Washington.”

So a “senior government official” wants caution thrown to the wind when it comes to arming local tribal militias in Afghanistan. This policy, it must be emphasized, is hotly contested at the highest military levels within ISAF. When I was there in December, here’s what I heard from the Canadians: “’On a scale from smart to dumb,’ one officer said, holding his hands apart in front of him, ‘arming the tribes is over here.’ He nodded at the ‘dumb’ end of his scale.”

“About two years in this mission,” incidentally, takes us into 2011, a rather notorious deadline for Canadian military activity in Kandahar. Make what you will, given that context, of the remarks by the anonymous official quoted by the Post quoted by Klein.

To sum up: Drone attacks are blowing up houses in Pakistan, without warning or appeal, and with no way to sort truth from rumour about casualty levels among civilians. The Pak army has gotten serious about the Taliban, but for the Pak army, serious means hamfisted, sweeping and authoritarian. And there are hints the White House is letting political deadlines at home decide its military strategy in Afghanistan.

None of this is good news.

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