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.