U.S. and Pakistani anti-Taliban operations along the AfPak border are plagued by contradiction, recent reports say.  A counterinsurgency doctrine emphasizing population protection that also relies upon unmanned armed drones will inevitably kill innocents in addition to terrorists.

Chris Brummitt of the Associated Press recounts the renunciation of a security agreement in North Waziristan in response to U.S. drone attacks and Pakistani army operations:

Since August, the United States has fired more than 40 missiles at suspected militant targets in the tribal regions in a sign of its frustration with Islamabad. The strikes have killed many militants but have also served as a rallying cry for the insurgents.

A spokesman for North Waziristan Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadur cited those attacks when pulling out of the deal.

“This accord is being scrapped because of Pakistan’s failure to stop the American drone attacks in North and South Waziristan,” Ahmadullah Ahmadi told The Associated Press. “Since the army is attacking us in North and South Waziristan, we will also attack them.”

Both Brummitt and Salman Masood of the New York Times note that the disintegration of this alliance endangers the forthcoming Pakistani incursion into South Waziristan, where Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban who orchestrated the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, claims sanctuary.  While peace agreements concluded with Taliban leaders are notoriously unreliable, this treaty was particularly important because it allowed the army to devote its resources fully to the campaign against Mehsud in South Waziristan.  Now, they will be forced to fight on multiple fronts.

Yet while the drone strikes have become a “rallying cry for the insurgents,” as stated above, they have also proved effective in killing mid-level Taliban commanders and in targeting Taliban operatives within their own sanctuary.  Just last week a series of drone strikes nearly killed Mehsud himself.  Pir Zubair Shah and Sabrina Tavernise in the New York Times:

The first strike hit a compound in Ladha, a village in the mountains of western Pakistan that is Mr. Mehsud’s sanctuary. It killed Khwazh Wali, a Taliban leader who was a close aide to Mr. Mehsud, and three others.

Later Tuesday, Mr. Wali’s body was taken for burial to the village of Zangara, east of Makeen, where people, apparently including Mr. Mehsud, went to pay tribute to the Taliban fighter. It was unclear how long after Mr. Mehsud had left the village that the second drone sent three missiles hurtling into the large crowd.

Estimates of the number of dead varied. One security official said that as many as 80 people had been killed, but a local resident in a nearby town said the number was closer to 50. Pakistani television reported that more than 100 had been killed.

Surely, it must be unnerving for the Taliban to witness the U.S. ability to strike the funeral of a Taliban operative killed the same day in a separate drone attack.  Such coordination reflects not only technological superiority, but also the possession of local Pakistani intelligence sources.  Moreover, the fact that the U.S. can strike the remote redoubts of Taliban militants necessarily restricts their ability to plan terrorist operations, in collusion with transnational Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda, against the U.S. and its allies.

But just as the attacks described above demonstrate the utility of drone strikes, they also killed scores of people, including – it is reasonable to assume – innocent civilians.  In an exhaustive essay in The New Republic, Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann capture the central, wrenching question of whether or not the tactical success provided by Predator drones – and superior U.S. firepower more broadly – creates more militants than it kills:

Nor has there been a substantive debate about whether the gains of winnowing the ranks of Al Qaeda’s leadership outweigh the fact that the inevitable civilian casualties are a superb recruiting tool for the Pakistani Taliban….All of which raises the question of whether the drone campaign, however useful in the short term, might fatally undermine U.S. efforts to stabilize the region and to win the long-term war against Al Qaeda and its allies.

This is the central question facing U.S. policymakers: do our means undermine our ends?  To put it bluntly, how can our stated aim of protecting the population exist alongside armed drones that literally rain hell down from the sky?  And to what extent do domestic political considerations, namely a natural proclivity toward limiting U.S. casualties, contribute to the use of unmanned drones that also inflict civilian casualties?  If we are forced to rely on such technology to the detriment of classic counterinsurgency doctrine, is there reason to question our current operations in Afghanistan and our assistance in Pakistan?

The Obama administration is of course aware of these challenges.  In addition to sending 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Obama appointed General Stanley McChrystal, a counterinsurgency expert and former head of the Special Forces, as Commander of U.S and NATO Forces in Afghanistan.  McChrystal promptly declared population protection his most important objective, set tough new guidelines for the use of air strikes (not including Predator drones), and began a review of American war aims throughout the country.  The Pakistani army has also recognized the threat emanating from radical Islamists in the tribal areas.  With large-scale operations nearly completed in Swat and about to commence in South Waziristan, the army is clearly willing to fight the Taliban insurgents.

The U.S. must continue to assess and evaluate its drone policy as the situation on the ground evolves.

Brendan Boundy is an intern with the New Atlanticist.  He is pursuing a master’s degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.