On March 1, 2009, an unmanned drone reportedly killed eight Taliban and Arab militants in the Sora Rogha area of tribal Pakistan. The strike, the fifth drone attack in Pakistan since late January, demonstrates that the Obama administration is not jettisoning the policies of the Bush administration regarding targeted killings; in fact, it appears to be ramping them up.

Taliban and al Qaeda militants seek to kill Americans and American allies and are instituting a reign of terror in the parts of Pakistan they control, so few tears should be shed over their demise. However, as the administration moves forward, it should bear in mind lessons from the Israeli experience with similar targeted killing operations, which I discussed in an article in Foreign Affairs in 2006. The Israeli example suggests that the current U.S. campaign of using Predator attacks to go after its enemies is fraught with risks and can neither defeat al Qaeda nor remove it from its stronghold within Pakistan. That said, continued U.S. strikes should help tamp down the threat al Qaeda poses -- at least temporarily -- making them Washington’s least bad policy choice for the moment.

In its operations in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel found it hard to kill only terrorists. B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, reports that of the 386 Palestinians who died as a result of targeted killing operations, from the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000 through the latest war in Gaza at the end of 2008, 40 percent were not the objects of attack -- and some of the unintended victims were children. In spite of all precautions taken, therefore, continued Predator strikes will inevitably kill innocent civilians as well as the enemy.

To have any chance of hitting their targets, meanwhile, Predator strikes require superb intelligence. Israel has a vast intelligence network, with thousands of informers in the Palestinian territories and a near-constant overhead presence of unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters. In Pakistan’s tribal areas, by contrast, good human intelligence is always in short supply, and constant surveillance is difficult due to the size of the area in question.

The United States cannot always generate enough good intelligence to sustain Predator operations on its own, but, as The New York Times has reported, Pakistani intelligence has at times given Washington detailed information on the location of militant leaders. Such support is limited, however, because Islamabad is playing a precarious double game. U.S. strikes on Pakistani soil are deeply unpopular, so no political leader wants to line up publicly with Washington. In addition, the militants are tied to powerful Pakistani interest groups, and many in the security elite hope to continue exploiting Islamic militants to serve Pakistani interests in both Afghanistan and Kashmir. This often means that Pakistani officials condemn U.S. actions in public while assisting them in private -- risking blows to their already weak standing when their hypocrisy is revealed (as it was last month, when Senator Dianne Feinstein [D-Calif.] disclosed that Predator strikes were being launched from bases in Pakistan).  

Still, despite the Predator campaign’s costs, it also has some benefits. Israel’s experience shows that a sustained campaign of targeted killings can disrupt a militant group tremendously, as slain leaders are replaced by less experienced and less skilled colleagues. This can lead the group to make operational and strategic mistakes, and over time, pose less of a danger. Moreover, constant killings can create command rivalries and confusion. Most important, the attacks force an enemy to concentrate on defense rather than offense. To avoid becoming targets, group leaders must minimize communications, avoid large groups, constantly change their locations, disperse their cells, and take other steps that make it far harder for them to do the sustained, systematic planning required to build large organizations and carry out sophisticated attacks.

The advantages of targeted killings, however, ultimately reveal the limits of such an approach to counterterrorism. The Predator strikes may force al Qaeda to watch its step in Pakistan, but the terrorists can still carry out some operations.  Moreover, their local jihadi partners (such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba) remain unaffected. So far, the strikes have been confined to tribal areas near the Afghan-Pakistani border, meaning that al Qaeda and the Taliban have been able to relocate parts of their apparatus further inside Pakistan, which may work to actually widen the zone of instability. Although Israel achieved some success through its campaign of targeted killings during the second intifada in the early years of this decade, it was able to fully shut down Palestinian terrorism only by reoccupying parts of the West Bank and building a massive security barrier between itself and much of the Palestinian territories -- options that are not available to the United States in Pakistan.

Finally, many of the benefits of targeted killings occur only if they are part of a sustained rapid-fire campaign. As Israel’s experience shows, sporadic one-off killings are usually a mistake. They may spark leadership rivalries -- particularly in highly hierarchical groups -- but they do not affect a group’s ability to replace lost leaders or force it to divert its resources to counterintelligence.  

What the Obama administration’s reliance on Predator strikes ultimately shows is just how flummoxed U.S. policymakers are when it comes to Pakistan. Stopping al Qaeda from using Pakistan as a base will depend on strengthening the government of Pakistan and stiffening its will to go after its own homegrown jihadis -- a tall order indeed. The current political leadership is weak and not fully committed to democracy and true reform. Civilian control over the military is nonexistent, and, in addition to the jihadist problem, bitter ethnic, sectarian, and political divisions threaten Pakistan’s unity. As the Obama administration begins the slow process of addressing these issues, the sad truth is that relying on bolts from the blue to keep al Qaeda and the Taliban weak and off balance is a sensible course to follow.

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  • DANIEL BYMAN is Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of the forthcoming book, A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.
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