In late September, NATO helicopters repeatedly crossed into Pakistan in pursuit of insurgents, killing at least 50 militants, as well as a trio of Pakistani border guards by mistake. Pakistani officials responded with outrage and closed a border crossing into Afghanistan for 11 days, leaving NATO supply trucks vulnerable to a series of insurgent attacks in which some 150 vehicles were burned.
The Pakistani response to the helicopter strikes was clear: NATO had overstepped its UN mandate and had violated Pakistan’s sovereignty.
But why hadn’t the Pakistani government been similarly outraged by the 77 other NATO air attacks on Pakistani soil in 2010, in which more than 400 militants were killed?
The answer is that those attacks had been carried out by drones, or unmanned aircraft operated by remote control.
The drone program began under George W. Bush’s administration and has gradually grown since then, with the most recent expansion reported in October 2010. Operated by the CIA, the drone attacks do not fall under the category of official military action, making it easier for the Pakistani government to tacitly allow a program intensely unpopular with its population.
And, as a reporter for the Economist argues, the use of drones also “make[s] it easier for America to maintain the fiction that it is not fighting a war in Pakistan, but employing technology in covert action.” After all, this reporter asks—summarizing a question raised by the Brookings Institution’s Peter Singer—politicians usually have to justify the loss of American life during war, but “if no one has children in danger, is it a war?” So far, the American government hasn’t treated its attacks in Pakistan as such.
Still, the use of drones is controversial in America and elsewhere, with critics arguing that the strikes kill too many innocent civilians and are not subject to sufficient oversight.
Have students do a search for articles on drone attacks in Afghanistan using SIRS Knowledge Source or World History in Context. Have them choose an attack, they should look to see whether any innocent civilians were reported killed, how many militants were successfully targeted, and what the Pakistani government’s response (if any) was to the attack.
Assign students to combine their research and thoughts into a short essay that details a specific drone attack and offers analysis on the use of drones in Pakistan in general.
Begin a class discussion by having students share portions of their essays. Then read excerpts from this New York Times editorial to move into a wider discussion of the ethics of drone warfare, including an examination of who—if anyone—should order such attacks, how such attacks should be regulated, and whether they should be classified as “covert action.”