Drone Wars

The Obama administration won't tell the truth about America's new favorite weapon -- but that doesn't mean its critics are right.

It's been a bad week for drones. On Friday, U.N. official Philip Alston announced he would be asking the United States to move the controversial, Central Intelligence Agency-run program under the aegis of the military, and international law. He joins a growing chorus of people opposed to the use of drone airstrikes to target militants ensconced in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), on legal, humanitarian, and operational grounds. (Alston is at least more informed than most drone foes in that he recognizes that the drone strikes in Pakistan's FATA are CIA-led covert operations rather than "military strikes.")

The anti-drone argument goes like this: Because drone attacks kill innocent civilians and violate Pakistan's sovereignty, they are deeply and universally despised by Pakistanis, and contribute to deepening anti-U.S. sentiment in the country -- enmity that could boost terrorist organizations' recruitment and eventually force Pakistan's military and civilian leaders to abandon their cooperation with the United States.

During his testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2009, David Kilcullen, a former counterinsurgency advisor to Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus, said it was time for the United States to "call off the drones." Later that month, Kilcullen and Andrew M. Exum, who served as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 to 2004, published a provocative editorial in the New York Times, titled "Death From Above: Outrage from Below," in which they estimated that over the "past three years" drones had killed just 14 "terrorist leaders" at the price of some 700 civilian lives. "This is 50 civilians for every militant killed," they wrote, "a hit rate of 2 percent." Their conclusion? Drone strikes produce more terrorists than they eliminate-an assertion that has become an article of faith among drone-strike opponents.

It would be a damning argument -- if the data weren't simply bogus. The only publicly available civilian casualty figures for drone strikes in Pakistan come from their targets: the Pakistani Taliban, which report the alleged numbers to the Pakistani press, which dutifully publishes the fiction. No one has independently verified the Taliban's reports -- journalists cannot travel to FATA to confirm the deaths, and the CIA will not even acknowledge the drone program exists, much less discuss its results. But high-level Pakistani officials have conceded to me that very few civilians have been killed by drones and their innocence is often debatable. U.S. officials who are knowledgeable of the program report similar findings. In fact, since January 1 there has not been one confirmed civilian casualty from drone strikes in FATA.

Not only do drone opponents rely upon these fictitious reports of civilian casualties, they also tend to conflate drone strikes in Pakistan with air strikes in Afghanistan, lumping the two related but very different battlefields together as one contiguous theater. They also conflate different kinds of air strikes within Afghanistan.

These distinctions matter, a lot. In Afghanistan, it is an ignominious truth that hundreds of civilians are killed in NATO airstrikes every year. But most of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan have not stemmed from pre-planned, intelligence-led attacks; rather, civilians are most likely to die when troops come into contact with the enemy and subsequently request air support. This is because when it comes to air strikes, NATO forces in Afghanistan have a limited range of air assets at their disposal. As a result, when troops come into contact with insurgents and call for air support, they get the ordnance that is available, not the firepower that would be best suited to their needs. Sometimes large bombs are dropped when smaller ones would have been better, and the risk of civilian casualties increases accordingly.

By contrast, drone airstrikes are pre-planned, intelligence-led operations, and are usually accomplished with minimal civilian deaths -- as even Human Rights Watch acknowledges. They are the product of meticulous planning among lawyers, intelligence officers, and others who scrupulously and independently confirm information about potential enemies, working to establish a rigorous "pattern of life" to minimize the deaths of innocents. Others in the Air Force, using a classified algorithm, estimate the potential for civilian casualties based upon a variety of local data inputs. While one should not be blasé about the loss of any civilian life, it is important to note that the different kinds of air operations are not created equal.

How does the situation in the air over Afghanistan compare to that in Pakistan? The short answer is that we don't know -- drone strikes in Pakistan are conducted under the auspices of the CIA and occasionally the Joint Special Operations Command, and are covert operations that the United States government does not even acknowledge take place. (If you've seen footage of civilian casualties at all, they're in Afghanistan, not Pakistan.) But if we know little about the drone strikes, we know enough about the alternative means of eliminating terrorists in FATA to know that they're probably worse. Pakistan has no police in FATA to arrest them. The Pakistan army is now in its 13th month of sustained combat in the region, an effort that has flattened communities and displaced millions but done little to chip away at the insurgents' strength. Drone strikes may not be perfect, but they're likely the most humane option available.

Of course, the actual impact of the drone strikes is only part of the equation -- the perception of them in Pakistan matters enormously as well. But here, too, the conventional wisdom -- that Pakistanis hate the drone strikes, and consider them an affront to their national sovereignty -- is not entirely correct. Pakistan's government makes a big show of opposing the strikes, but it's not much more than political theater. In fact, the United States secured permission to launch strikes from then President Pervez Musharraf in 2006 -- Musharraf was adamant at the time that the strikes be confined to the FATA and they have been. Musharraf also warned U.S. President George W. Bush beforehand that Pakistani military and civilian officials alike would protest the strikes, out of domestic political necessity -- it was nothing personal. Presidents Asif Ali Zardari and Barack Obama have inherited this combination of operating agreements and kabuki politics.

What about the Pakistanis in the regions where the strikes are occurring? The truth is, we don't really know what they think. Collecting reliable and rigorous opinion data in FATA is difficult -- the lack of a current census, the influx of Afghan refugees and emigration of FATA natives fleeing the unstable region makes it nearly impossible for even the best polling firms in Pakistan to draw a scientifically defensible sample of FATA residents. As a result, all we have is a smattering of anecdotal accounts, which vary depending upon who is asked, and where, when, and how they are interviewed. On one hand are those who rubbish the Pakistani media claims of civilian casualties and assert that the drones effectively kill militants but not civilians. On the other are outraged residents who live in fear of the constant buzzing of the drones circling above. It's unreasonable to extrapolate any kind of majority opinion from either one of them.

What is clear enough, however, is that the drone strikes, however unpopular they may be, are likely to be more popular than the realistic alternatives: the Taliban's violence or the Pakistani army's operations, which have displaced millions. Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani journalist and commentator, vividly captured the complex reality in his May 11 piece in The News: "The relative popularity of drones is almost as emphatic as their absolute unpopularity. Pakistani military operations have a reputation in the region now, for being so brutal, that entire parts of towns are destroyed. Drones that destroy one or two homes at a time, obviously represent less damage, and therefore, an option that is preferable to the military's artillery campaigns."

That's why, if the United States does pull its drones out of FATA, Pakistanis will have two options. Either the government simply gives up the fight, or the Pakistani military -- which is already stretched thin -- may have to pick up where the Americans leave off. After the Pakistani army's arduous battle to wrest control of the Swat Valley back from the Taliban beginning in earnest in 2009, Musharraf argued that the United States should give Pakistan drones to pull off future strikes without the massive footprint of a ground force operation. After subsequent requests were rebuffed, Pakistan first sought to buy drones from Italy, but now plans to manufacture them locally.

Nevertheless, American and Pakistani citizens do need to weigh the relative costs and benefits of drone attacks. Doing this requires some concessions from the U.S. government. First, it should abandon the absurd claim that it does not conduct drone strikes -- since Google Earth images of U.S. drones at the Shamshi airbase in Baluchistan were published in 2009, the charade hardly seems worth the effort. Second, it should provide evidence of what exactly the drone attacks have produced so far: who has been killed, and how important those people were to the enemy's capabilities. Drone critics can surely question and even reject the process by which individuals are declared "fair targets" and the legality of these extrajudicial killings. But such a debate can only happen when the U.S. government clarifies how targets are selected and vetted.

Until the U.S. government owns these attacks and presents information about their outcomes, at best unrealiable and at worst fabricated civilian casualties figures will dominate the drone debate. And that would be the real tragedy -- it could force policymakers in the United States and Pakistan to discard the least bad tool at their disposal.

U.S. Air Force/Getty Images


How Turkey Tamed Its Army

Fifty years after the country's most infamous military coup, Turkey finally appears to be strenghening its democratic institutions.

On May 27, 1960, Turkish military officers arrested democratically elected Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, and members of his cabinet. Menderes was placed on a trial before a military-orchestrated special court on charges of treason, and was subsequently hanged. For the last half century, Turkey has been struggling to overcome this original sin in civil-military relations.

Finally, there are some encouraging signs that Turkey has made progress in forging a stable democratic system. Turkish militarists are increasingly the subjects of legal and societal scrutiny -- despite their best attempts to turn back the clock on Turkey's democracy.

Contrary to the views of some Turkish and Western analysts, the primary struggle within Turkey is not between Islam and secularism, but rather between a militaristic pseudo-autocracy and liberal democracy.

In June 2009, the daily newspaper Taraf courageously published what the editors said was a leaked military document that included covert operations to undermine the elected Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and marginalize its base of support. Among the tactics was the planting of weapons in the dormitories of students sympathizing with Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen and later confiscating those weapons in order to depict the movement, which is resolutely non-violent, as a terrorist organization.

Attempting to contain the fallout from these revelations, Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug rushed in front of the cameras and vowed the document was just a "piece of paper," setting the tone for others in Turkey's nationalist-secularist circles. To them, this could only be a fabrication of the "Islamists," who would like to discredit the military, the self-proclaimed guardian of self-styled secularism. They constantly overlooked reports submitted by top official forensic institutions in Turkey to civilian prosecutors confirming the authenticity of the document. In March, the military prosecution also concluded that the signature on the document belonged to Dursun Cicek, a colonel working for the Turkish General Staff at the time.

In January 2010 Taraf again exposed a mind-boggling story: portions of an approximately 5,000-page-long document involving an alleged military coup plan from 2003, called "Sledgehammer." The scenario described in the documents was explosive: A group of senior officers was deliberating on how to destabilize Turkey to pave the way for a military takeover. Their creative ideas included the deliberate downing of a Turkish fighter jet to escalate tension with Greece and bombing two major Istanbul mosques to provoke social unrest. Consequently, dozens of active duty and retired military officers, among them generals, have been arrested by a civilian court.

The initial reaction of the militarist camp was familiar: denial, cover-up, and accusations of a vast conspiracy by Gulen's supposed sympathizers in the military, the police and the judiciary.

All this points to an unprecedented revolution in Turkish politics. This is the first time in modern Turkish history that the military's lack of accountability is being challenged in such a high-profile way. The generals have accomplished at least four direct military interventions in Turkey over the last five decades and always got away with them. Not this time.

The spirit of Turkey's new reformist trend is best exemplified by a landmark trial and investigation into Ergenekon, an agglomeration of many different groups comprising scores of military officers and militarist civilians dedicated to preserving the crumbling Cold War-era regime in Turkey. According to prosecutors, Ergenekon suspects laid the groundwork for a military takeover by employing vicious tactics, including political assassinations, terrorist bombings, and propaganda directed by the friendly media at the Turkish public.

The Ergenekon investigators had previously discovered the documents, which they say bear the signature of Colonel Cicek, even before they were made public by Taraf. Seized maps led police to the sites of secret stockpiles of military-owned weapons buried underground. The documents also revealed the purpose of such weapons. According to an operation called "the Cage plan," undersigned by numerous military officers, they would clandestinely harass and kill non-Muslim figures in Turkey in order to put the blame on the ruling AK Party.

The militarist lobby has highlighted some of the problems of the Ergenekon investigation, such as early-morning police raids of the suspects and poor wording in the initial indictments. Overall, however, the prosecution's case seems very strong. It is supported by court-ordered telephone wiretaps, seized documents, a large amount of explosives and weapons, detailed assassination plans, and military records. In a country where the military has repeatedly intervened in political affairs, such a conspiracy is not inconceivable.

Encouragingly, the Turkish public has also shown considerable support for the case. Nearly 60 percent of respondents to a recent MetroPOLL survey, conducted in March 2010, expressed support for the detention and arrest of military suspects associated with the alleged 2003 coup plan. A major exception, not surprisingly, are members of Turkey's old guard. In the same poll, nearly 70 percent of Republican People's Party (CHP) voters, a favorite party of the old establishment, disagreed with the indictments.

In the eyes of many CHP voters, the secular state is being weakened under the guise of democratization to lay the groundwork for a theocracy. But though Turkey is a nation of faith, just like the United States, the country has little or no appetite for radicalism or theocracy, even among the most religiously conservative segments of society. On the contrary, major religious conservative elements such as the AK Party and the Gulen movement are openly pushing for more democracy in Turkey. Under AK Party rule, Turkey has met the Copenhagen political criteria, which determine if a country is eligible to join the European Union, and subsequently began accession talks with the EU in 2005. The Gulen movement sponsors its annual Abant Platform series of talks, where a diverse group of intellectuals and public officials discuss how to improve the country's democracy. They are not without fault, but militarists treat almost every influential pious group as Islamists with a hidden agenda.

The faith-based civic movement inspired by Gulen has attracted the most attention. The 69-year-old Gulen, who now lives in the United States and rarely appears in public, advocates a contemporary interpretation of Turkish Sufi tradition, compatible with modernity and science. Having started as a small community in the late 1960s, it has over time been transformed into a large, loosely knit movement with a formidable presence in many key areas of Turkey's public sphere. But as with any other successful independent movement, the militarists see it as a threat to their narrow vision of Turkey.

Reformist liberals such as Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's Nobel laureate in literature, also has been subjected to their share of smear campaigns from the same crowd. Pamuk has publicly said that Ergenekon intimidated and threatened to kill him. It's no surprise that Kemal Kerincsiz, an ultranationalist lawyer who spearheaded legal efforts to curtail Pamuk's right to free speech, has been indicted as an Ergenekon suspect.

The militarist lobby presents the Ergenekon case as a political campaign to silence secularist opposition to the AK Party government and its supporters. But while there have been signs in government circles of increasing discomfort with criticism on the eve of upcoming 2011 general elections, political opposition is largely alive and well in Turkey. Hundreds of secularist, nationalist, and liberal pundits freely criticize the government every day.

What we see occurring in Turkey today is a process of democratization, spurred by growing civilian control over the military. However, due to problems deriving from the country's illiberal constitution, which is a product of a 1980 military coup, progress has not always been smooth. Critics have charged that the Ergenekon investigation has proceeded for a long time without delivering convictions. This is a common and regrettable feature of Turkey's judicial system: Proceedings that started in 1982 against Dev-Sol, an alleged left-wing extremist organization, took 28 years before 39 individuals were finally convicted. The solution is a comprehensive constitutional reform that includes the judiciary. Such a step would not only improve the role of law, but strengthen Turkey's case for European Union accession by harmonizing the country's judicial process with European standards.

The principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk loomed large in the minds of the young officers who spearheaded the 1960 coup, and Turkey's military class continues to justify its stance in the name of Turkey's founding father. But Ataturk was essentially a pragmatic reformer whose main goals were modernization and integration with the West. The static, statist, and militarist instincts of Turkey's old guard have only slowed progress toward these objectives. The notion of the "untouchable state" preserved by the military and their comrades has changed dramatically in the last several years, but much work still remains to be done. Despite the objections of his self-declared defenders, Ataturk would be proud.