America’s Care in the Use of Force (and Use of Drones)

American University professor Akbar Ahmed’s new book, The Thistle and the Drone, is elegant and erudite in many ways. He demonstrates a rich historical and anthropological understanding not only of his native Pakistan but of other tribal societies around the world relevant in the broader “war against terrorism.” He cautions wisely about the geostrategic dangers that can result if Washington is seen as using force disproportionately or carelessly in ways that hurt innocent people in these areas. Ahmed is right to question whether the United States needs to reassess its approaches in these matters.

However, as someone who has followed these same issues myself, albeit from a somewhat different vantage point as a national security scholar with close ties to the U.S. military and intelligence community, I have a different perspective on several of the issues Ahmed raises. In some of his specific arguments, Professor Ahmed is not fully fair, accurate, or up to date.

He makes insufficient effort to understand trends in drone warfare including the huge progress that the United States has made in minimizing civilian casualties. While mistakes are sometimes still made, I believe after following the use of drones closely for years that the United States Armed Forces take a great deal of care in their use of force. It is dangerous for Ahmed to suggest otherwise, since in doing so he can fuel the very fires of hatred and distrust that he decries.

For example, in Afghanistan, ISAF forces have made extraordinary efforts to reduce their use of firepower, and accidental or inadvertent strikes now account for less than 10 percent of all civilian fatalities there according to UN figures. This is still far too many—a few hundred a year—but it is incredibly precise by the standards of warfare. Indeed, under General McChrystal three years ago, some NATO troops felt they were even being asked to accept greater personal risk to themselves and their fellow troopers when engaged in firefights so as to ensure maximum safety for Afghans. NATO troops do not fire on Afghan homes or other buildings unless in dire peril, and their care has produced a huge improvement in our track record.

In Pakistan, U.S. forces have had essentially a zero-casualty policy for at least three years. Attacks are not made if there is any realistic risk to civilians—with only a partial exception if al Qaeda’s top two or three leaders might be in the crosshairs. Yes, mistakes have been made. But these have been extremely rare. Peter Bergen tallies the number of accidental deaths of innocents as well under 10 percent of the total in recent times. To be sure, critiques are warranted, and we can afford to scale back our use of force now that bin Laden is dead, top al Qaeda leadership in general is decimated, and some key Haqqani leaders are out of the picture (we have already reduced the pace of attacks substantially, as Bergen’s data repeated at show). But the insinuations that we have not been extremely careful and have not tried to learn further lessons along are simply incorrect.

Ahmed goes further. On p. 39 of his book, he even says that “There appears to be a deliberate attempt by official agencies in the war on terror to obfuscate and distort.” This is a big charge that he makes without substantiation or specificity.

There are a few other specific matters where dissent is warranted, as well. On p. 305 he suggests that many if not most American scholars blame Islam and its basic nature for terrorism. This is not accurate. Far more American scholars go out of their way to argue just the opposite in the last 12 years.

On p. 309 he actually suggests that a mainstream strand of American national security thinking wants to “eradicate Islam.” This is, frankly, a preposterous and irresponsible allegation.

On p. 311 he suggests that it was a serious idea to carpet bomb Muslim villages with videos of Baywatch, and that Americans would take such nonsense seriously. Perhaps here Ahmed is being tongue in cheek, but in light of his other arguments, I couldn’t tell. I hope so!

On p. 313, he says that al Qaeda is now blamed for every outburst of violence around the world, and that Americans live on pins and needles because of fear of another attack. In fact, most Americans have moved on. They worry far more about the economy. In national security terms, recent policy has focused as much on the so-called rebalancing towards Asia, and the problems with North Korea. More than anything else, though, what typifies the current American public policy debate is less paranoia over al Qaeda than Americans’ growing isolationism. Ahmed would have been more fair to criticize the country for its indifference towards the Syrian civil war than for hypervigilance towards militants.

Finally, on p. 319, Ahmed suggests that anthropologists were brought into U.S. foreign policy decisionmaking to help determine how to properly torture Muslim prisoners. This too is wrong.

Ahmed is a remarkable scholar who has made big contributions, but on the above matters, I simply disagree.