I don't have any problem with the contention that the near-term campaign against Al Qaeda is aided by drone strikes; this is almost certainly true. On the broader question of strikes as a beneficial part of the overall counterinsurgency campaign, I've gone from being anti- to roughly agnostic.
Several Taliban training camps in the Pakistan hinterland were hit last week by missiles fired from American unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, reportedly killing some 20 terrorists. Remarkably, some people think these strikes are a bad idea.
To get a sense of what U.S. drone strikes have accomplished in the past two years, recall the political furor that followed a July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which found that al Qaeda had "protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland [i.e., U.S.] attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership. . . . As a result, we judge that the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment." The media declared we were losing the war.
Less than a year later, then-CIA director Michael Hayden offered a far more upbeat assessment to the Washington Post.
What changed? At least part of the answer is that the U.S. went from carrying out only a handful of drone attacks in 2007 to more than 30 in 2008.
Having said that, this particular editorial sort of misrepresents the case of those who oppose drone strikes on the Pakistani side of the border.
As Andrew Exum and others (notably his co-authors on the CNAS report Triage) have remarked, U.S. military figures on civilian deaths as a result of Predator attacks are almost irrelevant; as much as we talk about "being first with the truth," stories in the Pakistani (and global) media, often fueled by enemy propaganda -- those very "wire reports" of which the Journal is so disdainful -- are generally considered more credible in the region.
Lord Bingham, until recently Britain's senior law lord, has recently said UAV strikes may be "beyond the pale" and potentially on a par with cluster bombs and landmines. Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen says "the Predator [drone] strikes have an entirely negative effect on Pakistani stability." He adds, "We should be cutting strikes back pretty substantially."
In both cases, the argument against drones rests on the belief that the attacks cause wide-scale casualties among noncombatants, thereby embittering local populations and losing hearts and minds. If you glean your information from wire reports -- which depend on stringers who are rarely eyewitnesses -- the argument seems almost plausible.
Which brings me around to my point, which is this: more than just creating additional enemies through the death of innocents, one of the major down-sides to a continued drone campaign is that it underlines the Pakistani government's inability to exercise sovereignty and control over its own territory. If we recognize that the very most fundamental imperative of our engagement in South Asia is the prevention of regime collapse and security of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, then this concern is magnified.
Proponents of an assassination-from-the-air campaign typically try to gloss over more sophisticated objections by arguing that the deaths of some small number of civilians (certainly smaller than what's reported in the news, I tell you!) are justified by the significance of the targets we've eliminated. But sometimes you lose even when you win.