Today's date:
Summer 2009

From Colonial Air Attacks  to Drones in Pakistan


Priya Satia is Assistant Professor of Modern British History at Stanford University. Her book, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East was published by Oxford University Press last year.


Stanford—As Pakistan spirals out of its grasp, the Obama administration is at last hearing criticism of drone attacks in the country. Influential military officials such as Col. David Kilcullen, a former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, have testified that, despite damaging the Taliban leadership and protecting United States pilots, the strategy is backfiring. The Taliban's recent gains come on the heels of President Barack Obama's intensification of remotely piloted air strikes—16 strikes in the first four months of 2009 compared with 36 in all of 2008.

The belated skepticism about drones is well placed but a halt is not enough. Only a permanent end to the strategy will win Pakistani hearts and minds back to their government and its US ally. They, like Afghans and Iraqis, are struck less by the strategy's futuristic qualities than by its uncanny echo of the past: Aerial counterinsurgency was invented in precisely these two regions—Iraq and the Pakistani-Afghan borderland—in the 1920s by the British.

The memory of that colonial past crucially shapes the military and political dynamics of any aerial strategy in the region. Col. Kilcullen shrewdly discerned that Pakistanis see the drones as "neocolonial." Oddly, the historical use of aerial policing in the region has been entirely absent from public debate about the issue, despite the light it sheds on the likelihood of the tactic's success.

The British, too, turned to aerial surveillance as a way out of the double bind of persistent anti-colonial rebellion and popular demands that their troops be brought home. When the British public grew critical in turn of the violence of the new strategy, officials proclaimed that it worked more through the threat of bombardment than actual attack, gamely embracing "terror" as its main tactical principle. As I discovered while researching Air Ministry documents, officials privately confessed that the public was not ready for the truth that air warfare had made distinctions between civilians and combatants "obsolete." And the Middle East offered an ideal terrain for its education: this was the region in which civilian deaths would be easiest to stomach, air staff officials argued, since Arabs and Pathans "love fighting for fighting's sake...They have no objection to being killed." In 1924, Squadron Leader Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command in World War II, reported having shown Iraqis "what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village ...can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed."

But British aerial control failed miserably, and regional memory of that bloody past ensures that the strategy continues to raise the specter of ruthless Western imperial ambition—no matter how much US officials protest their altruism.

Certainly, aerial control did save British lives and money, but Iraqi and Afghan anger about civilian deaths and constant foreign surveillance produced decades of coups, violence, and conflict with the West, leading up to the current wars. Bombardment stiffened resistance, and determined insurgents found ways to evade the "all-seeing" eyes in the sky. As long as the Royal Air Force remained in Iraq, where it functioned as a full-fledged imperial administration, the legitimacy of the "independent" Iraqi government was compromised and insurgency remained rife. However discreet, the British presence remained a provocation. Indeed, its very discretion triggered endless Iraqi anxiety about covert Western designs on their country, even after the revolution of 1958 overthrew the British-backed monarchy and sent the Royal Air Force scuttling home.

The air policing regime lasted as long as it did because heavy censorship and secrecy prevented even officials from perceiving the extent of the damage it was doing. No one knew how many Iraqis and Afghans were killed; casualty counts that did come in lumped women, children, and "insurgents" together. Likewise, today's drones operate in secrecy; indeed, in Pakistan, they are controlled by the CIA. The trickle of reports on air strikes remains unable to assess the number and identity of their victims. Austere statements of unknown numbers of children among the dead conceal an abyss of horror. The White House and the US military routinely offer no comment on these strikes. In a rare front-page story on the drones, The New York Times reported precisely how many of the $150 million Predators have crashed (70 out of 195) but said nothing about human losses. In a recent interview, Col. Kilcullen said that in Pakistan 14 al-Qaida leaders had been hit, at the cost of 700 civilian lives—"a hit rate of 2 percent on 98 percent collateral. It's not moral." The controversy over civilian deaths in a strike on Afghan villages last week is partly due to the fact that the bombs literally ripped people to shreds--there was nothing left to count.

In short, there is no public scrutiny of drone activity or any reason to take their effectiveness on trust. Today's drones may be more precise than the crude bombers of the past; they might enable our troops to come home and keep our pilots safer; the threat of their violence may even reduce roadside bombings. But they will not eliminate violence or create a truly secure environment in which Iraqi, Pakistani, Afghan and US interests can flourish.

Military skeptics warn of the impossibility of usefully analyzing the enormous amount of data the drones collect. News reports confirm that civilians are often caught in their lethal sights, not least because of the practical difficulty of identifying "bad guys" in societies engaged in various kinds of protest against their American-backed governments. Uncertainty about the actual number of deaths feeds rumors of the worst. Similarly, news of a temporary halt will not allay suspicions of their continued, even more covert use: the effort to defuse Afghan anger over recent strikes shows that when a covert imperial power issues a denial, no one listens. The casualties and the imposition of continual foreign surveillance provoke more anger and insecurity than the system contains. Just as the British failure produced our present discontents, today's mistaken faith in an aerial panacea will fuel the conflicts of the future.

Proponents of drone warfare insist that its military advantages outweigh its political ramifications; they remain blind to the fact that their military opponent draws its sustenance—its recruits and resources—from the political capital it gains (and the American government loses) as a result of drone attacks. It grows with each American homage to the imperial politics of the past. Mr. Obama must heed local rulers' requests to end drone attacks—as a matter of tactical as much as political wisdom. As long as Iraqis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis can look upon their governments as Janus-faced collaborators in violent and covert American military activity, those governments will not be able to stand up, and American troops will not be able to stand down. Let's not fall for groupthink again; let's connect the dots correctly between the escalation of drone warfare and the Taliban's sudden advances.