Debate over the use of drones in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen has been raging over the past couple of years and both sides tend to make well-formulated arguments. Is there a middle ground between continuing our current strategy and halting it altogether?
It is clear that the drone campaign in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen has only been a partial success. It seems certain that drone strikes in Pakistan are, at least to some degree, aiding terrorist recruiting. Strikes lead to local support of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and can be used for terrorist propaganda that is spread worldwide.
For the U.S. to be successful in destroying Al Qaeda and the Taliban for good, we must help protect the citizens of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen make sure their governments gain legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens and give them the tools and motives to continue the fight on their own. Every time a civilian is killed in a drone strike, we are failing in this mission.
Anti-drone sentiment has also become increasingly common in the U.S. Vocal opponents of drone warfare at home are turning the tide of the American public’s opinion on drone warfare. Their arguments against drones seem to center around the killing of innocent civilians, the illegality of infringing on other countries’ sovereignty, and the potential for drones to allow us to wage never-ending war in foreign lands without any impact on the American public. As we have seen in Vietnam and Iraq, public support, or lack thereof, can be an important factor in how wars are fought and won.
Taking all these criticisms of drone warfare into account, we need to decide whether we should continue to use drones at all. The argument really boils down to whether we should take an offensive approach to combating terrorism or a defensive approach. If we decide it is necessary to pursue an offensive approach in order to put terrorist organizations on the defensive and disrupt their activities – and it does look like the policy-makers in the defense community have decided to take this route – then drones are our best option. Arguing against drones in particular is difficult. Opponents of drones may have better luck arguing against an offensive approach in general.
Other options include sending more Special Forces troops into Pakistan’s tribal regions to train the Pakistani tribes to fight Al Qaeda or to work in other ways to assist Pakistan in eradicating Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The first option is unlikely to work because the American people are unwilling to send our troops off to fight in a new war that could involve another decade of fighting. The second option is unlikely to work because it relies on the weak and corrupt Pakistani government, military and Inter-Services Intelligence to achieve victory.
Drones are by far the best weapon the United States has in hunting and killing terrorists. Compared to other offensive options, civilians face less of a risk from drone strikes.
For example, in 2004 the Pakistani military sent 80,000 troops to root out Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Waziristan, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. This resulted in the displacement of millions of civilians and the deaths of around 20,000 civilians. These military operations did not result in the destruction of Al Qaeda or the Taliban.
Civilian casualties in drone strikes since 2004 range from 104 to 884 depending on the source. These casualty numbers are two orders of magnitude less than those incurred by Pakistani military action. It is important to note that these numbers are extremely difficult to verify because of the covert nature of the strikes, the way militants are defined and the way the data is collected. It is also important to note that the number of civilians killed per year has steadily decreased since 2009.
The United States could change its strategy in these countries to avoid some of the serious downsides of drone warfare while still reaping the benefits of being able to put militants on the defensive.
First, we should reduce the number of strikes, increase the threshold of intelligence required to strike and focus more on high-ranking militants. Increasing the threshold of intelligence requirements has the dual benefit of further reducing civilian casualties and reducing the number of strikes altogether.
Additionally, we should immediately stop the policy of “signature strikes.” Military-aged men on the ground who appear to be exhibiting militant behavior are sometimes attacked without enough supporting intelligence. These types of attacks carry a greater risk to civilians and do not discriminate between high-level and low-level militants.
Finally, the U.S. government, especially the Obama administration, needs to be more transparent in general with respect to drone strikes. The administration needs to regain the public’s trust before the tide of public opinion permanently turns against drones. This does not mean the administration or the Department of Defense needs to release sensitive information; it means the public should know more about the process behind a drone strike and about what is required to get approval for strikes.
Drone strikes cannot be the centerpiece of an anti-terrorism strategy in the Middle East. We have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan that utilizing America’s superior firepower does not always achieve desired ends. We must put more pressure on these governments, especially Pakistan, to work with the U.S. against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The CIA must transfer more of its focus from paramilitary operations back to its traditional role as an intelligence-gathering organization.
There is some reason for optimism. CIA director John Brennan’s drafting of a drone “playbook” gives promise that more restrictions and well-defined rules will be adhered to in the future. Also, the number of drone strikes has decreased since 2010. As the number of strikes in Pakistan decreases it will be important to look to Yemen where the number of strikes has increased during the past two years along with the growing threat that this country poses to the West.
While there are problems with using drones in warfare, this does not mean that drones do not have a place in Middle East strategy. As General Stanley McChrystal said, “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.” But McChrystal also said, “I’m not against drone warfare completely. I think it’s another tool that modern nations have to have. But what we have to understand is that every time you do anything in the world, there is a reaction to it.”
Matt Parman is a senior Mechanical Engineering major from Mountain View, Calif.