WASHINGTON - The U.S. program of drone aircraft strikes against higher-ranking officials of al Qaeda and allied militant organizations, which has been touted by proponents as having eliminated nine of the 20 top al Qaeda leaders, is actually weakening Pakistan's defence against the insurgency of the Islamic militants there by killing large numbers of civilians based on faulty intelligence and discrediting the Pakistani military, according to data from the Pakistani government and interviews with senior analysts.
Some evidence indicates, moreover, that the top officials in the Barack Obama administration now see the program more as an incentive for the Pakistani military to take a more aggressive posture toward the militants rather than as an effective tool against the insurgents.
Although the strikes have been sold to the U.S. public as a way to weaken and disrupt al Qaeda, which is an explicitly counter-terrorist objective, al Qaeda is not actually the main threat to U.S. security emanating from Pakistan, according to some analysts. The real threat comes from the broader, rapidly growing insurgency of Islamic militants against the shaky Pakistani government and military, they observe, and the drone strikes are a strategically inappropriate approach to that problem.
"Al Qaeda has very little to do with the militancy in the tribal areas of Pakistan," said Marvin Weinbaum, former Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence Research at the U.S. Department of State and now scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute.
John McCreary, a senior intelligence analyst for the Defence Intelligence Agency until his retirement in 2006, agrees with Weinbaum's assessment. "The drone program is supposed to be all about al Qaeda," he told IPS in an interview, but in fact, "the threat is much larger."
McCreary observes that the targets in recent months "have been expanded to include Pakistani Pashtun militants." The administration apparently had dealt with that contradiction by effectively broadening the definition of al Qaeda, according to McCreary
Ambassador James Dobbins, the director of National Security Studies at the Rand Corporation, who maintains contacts with a range of administration national security officials, told IPS in an interview that the drone strikes in Pakistan are aimed "in the short and medium term" at the counter-terrorism objective of preventing attacks on Washington and other capitals.
But as they have shifted to Pakistani Taliban targets, Dobbins said, "To degree the targets are insurgents and are Pakistanis not Arabs it would be correct to assess that they are part of an insurgency." That raises the question, he said, whether the drone program "is feeding the insurgency and popular support for it."
The drone program cannot even be expected to be a decisive factor in al Qaeda's ability to operate, according to McCreary. "All you can do with drones is decapitate leadership," McCreary told IPS in a recent interview. "Even in relation to al Qaeda's organizational dynamics, it has only limited, temporary impact."
McCreary warned that the drone strikes will cause much more serious problems when they increase and expand into new parts of Pakistan as the administration is now seriously considering, according to a New York Times article Apr. 7. "Now al Qaeda is fleeing to other cities, "said McCreary. "The program is escalating and having ripple effects that are incalculable."
McCreary said one of the longer-term consequences of the attacks is "the public humiliation of the Pakistan Army as a defender of the national patrimony". That effect of striking Pakistani targets with U.S. aircraft is "the least understood dimension of the attacks, the most discounted and most dangerous". McCreary said the attacks' "ensure that successive generations of Pakistani military officers will be viscerally anti-American."
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Administration officials have defended the drone strikes program as necessary to weaken and disrupt al Qaeda to prevent terrorist attacks, and officials have leaked to the media in recent weeks the fact that the program has killed nine of 20 top al Qaeda leaders.
But the Pakistani government leaked data last week to The News in Lahore showing that only 10 drone attacks out of 60 carried out from Jan. 29, 2009 to Apr. 8, 2009 actually hit al Qaeda leaders, while 50 other strikes were based on faulty intelligence and killed a total of 537 civilians but no al Qaeda leaders.
The drone strikes have been even less accurate in their targeting in 2009 than they had been from 2006 through 2008, according to the detailed data from Pakistani authorities. Of 14 drone strikes carried out in those 99 days, only one was successful, killing a senior al Qaeda commander in North Waziristan and its external operations chief. The other 13 strikes had killed 152 people without netting a single al Qaeda leader.
Dobbins, speaking to IPS before the Pakistani data on drone strikes was released, said it was difficult for an outsider to evaluate the benefits of the program but that "we can assess that there is a significant price that is being paid" in terms of the impact on Pakistani opinion toward U.S. efforts to stem the tide of the insurgency.
Dobbins said one of the reasons for the continuing drone attacks, despite the high political price, is that "it is an incentive aimed prodding the Pakistani government." He said he believes the United States would be happy to trade off the strikes in return for a more effective counterinsurgency campaign by the Pakistani government.
Further bolstering that interpretation of the objective of continued drone strikes is a report, in the same story in The News, that the most recent strike took place only hours after U.S. officials had reportedly received a rejection by Pakistani authorities Apr. 8 of a proposal for joint military operations against militant organizations in the tribal areas from U.S. South Asia envoy Richard Holbrooke and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who were visiting Islamabad.
Other analysts suggest that the program has acquired bureaucratic and political momentum because it a politically important symbol that the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan are against al Qaeda and because the United States has no other policy instrument to demonstrate that it is doing something about the growth of Islamic groups that share al Qaeda's extremist Islamic militancy.
McCreary believes that the program is related to the fear of the Obama administration that it would be unable to get support for operations in Afghanistan if it didn't focus on al Qaeda. "I think it was a way to link Afghanistan operations to al Qaeda," he said.
"That suggests to me that the tactic for motivating domestic support is influencing the policy," said McCreary. The former senior DIA analyst added that the drone strike program "has acquired its own momentum, which is now having immense consequences."
Weinbaum told IPS in an interview that the drone attacks are being continued, "primarily because we're enormously frustrated, and they represent the only thing we really have."
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.