U.S. foreign policy is increasingly reliant on drones for both surveillance and ‘kinetic operations’. Leon Panetta recently unveiled a plan to reduce counterinsurgency-style warfare in favor of smaller, technologically-advanced forces centered on black-ops and drones. This policy shift, one that will undoubtedly lead to blowback, is exacerbated by little to no political engagement with the countries that are targeted, such as Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia.
The problem with the drones policy isn’t that drones themselves are bad, but that they are happening without broader political, social, and even economic policies that could mitigate their pernicious consequences. In Pakistan, the limp U.S. engagement has at the very least not helped the nasty politics of Islamabad (the case of Raymond Davis — whose case became the source of deep, vicious public anger — shows that the drones policy almost certainly made Pakistani politics and the government worse off). In Yemen, the limp U.S. political engagement with the Yemeni opposition groups has not only failed to mitigate the negative consequences of shooting missiles into desert villages, it has also crippled the U.S. ability to cope with a post-Saleh future.In both countries, Pakistan and Yemen, the U.S. faces a future similar to what it faces in the Arab Spring countries: a sudden cut-off of information and cooperation it thinks critical to the global struggle against extremism. Yet that hasn’t slowed down the pace of drone warfare — especially when they come to define U.S. policy in places like the Horn of Africa (another area where U.S. engagement is primarily through drones and special forces instead of through politics).Already, some countries are reacting against this global assertion to fly airplanes and kill at will. Last December, Algeria denied the U.S. permission to fly drones over its territory to help contain negative spillover effects from the Libyan intervention. Needless to say, that has limited U.S. options in the area because the U.S. never bothered to come up with a policy that doesn’t rely on drones. Thus, as there appears to be a growing gap between the CIA and Algeria on how to react to the threat posted by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, there just isn’t the political foundation in place to work those differences through.