I support the drone program, to an extent.
Tl;DR at bottom
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am strong supporter of drone strikes. I believe that they are, in fact, an effective means that efficiently eliminates a target whilst minimizing civilian casualties and without putting American boots on the ground. Indeed, they have been at the forefront of the elimination of various terrorists, including several high ranking members of al-Qaeda and their allies.
Looking at this chart ([url=http://www.longwarjournal.org/pakistan-strikes.php]here[/url]), we can get an idea of just how effective they are at eliminating a target whilst minimizing civilian casualties. Since 2006, some 2,500 members of various jihadist organizations have been killed while only 153 civilians have been killed. I say “only” like I don’t care about civilians dying—I do—it’s just the numbers are incredibly low when compared to how many actual, or suspected, militants we have killed.
Let’s also look at Yemen’s chart: [url=http://www.longwarjournal.org/multimedia/Yemen/code/Yemen-strike.php]here[/url]. It should be noted that the drone program in Yemen is relatively new compared to the one in Pakistan. However, besides 2009, the same basic pattern continues. Please understand that the numbers in both of these charts are a very well educated guess. The reporting in Taliban or allied controlled areas is very minimal, at best.
Drones also have another beneficial aspect to their use: The disruption of enemy movements. Drone strikes are incredibly good at shaking up enemy movements, which subsequently, hinder their ability to coordinate attacks either on the regional scale or the global scale. This disruption of enemy movement is, in itself, a good thing; however, like my good friend and colleague Tom (military theorist) points out:
“While it's useful in that is constantly disrupts A.Q. and insurgent leadership, there are situations where a strike may do more harm than good. Especially when you are dealing with strikes on low level peons and the such.
Killing terrorists isn't the endgame in itself, but rather a method to mitigate the effects of a terrorist organization. The endgame is to render the group operationally neutered and to significantly lower growth. That generally entails encouraging an effective government that is capable of asserting control over its territory and economic revitalization. Sometimes this isn't always possible, so the drone strikes at the very least disrupt operations.”
I could not agree more with his assessment. While impacting movements disrupts operations, it does nothing for our end goals. Before I move on to why my opinion is changing, I’d like to elaborate on what he said here: “That generally entails encouraging an effective government that is capable of asserting control over its territory and economic revitalization”. This is, in essence, what needs to happen in order to successfully counter the terrorism threats; however, like he also pointed out, that isn’t always possible. Take Pakistan, for example, either out of unwillingness or incompetency, they do not do hardly enough to curtail the jihadist threat they face in their country—which often spills over into Afghanistan. In places like Pakistan, it may be in our best interests to use drones to try and curb the jihadists, rather than to wait and rely on Pakistan to do it themselves.
However, like Mr. Bill Roggio points out in the first link, our drone policy has essentially become a substitute for an actual comprehensive strategy to deal with terrorism. Under the Obama Administration, the drone program has increased substantially, when compared to when it was first started in 2002. To quote Mr. Roggio: “One problem I have with the administration’s view on this is that it seems to think that just killing some of al Qaeda’s top leaders will cause al Qaeda to collapse. But the organization just isn’t going away - it’s evolved over time to include other terrorist groups …”. This couldn’t be truer in how the current Administration sees the use of drones and our current strategy.
While drones have taken out a multitude of terrorists, including senior leaders, have the groups disbanded or otherwise collapsed? Not really. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a severe conundrum in our counter-terrorism strategies. Either continue the over-reliance on drones or form a new, comprehensive strategy that entails every aspect of terrorism and how drones may be used appropriately. With our over-reliance on drones, it leaves us with a few disadvantages.
First off, like Mr. Rodriguez (former CIA) points out here: [url=http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/08/the-danger-of-our-shoot-to-kill-terrorist-policy/]click[/url]
As the result of our cancellation of the detainee program and because we no longer capture anyone, we’ve instead turned to killing everyone. Because of this, we can no longer obtain valuable information from held militants. This information can include anything from future plots, coordination, key players, relationships between terrorist organizations, and a wide range of other questions—all of which, we can no longer ask. Mr. Rodriguez brings up the Boston Bombings and how if we could question those held at G-Bay or if we still captured people, we could then cross-reference what held militants know in correlation to Tameralan Tsarnaev or the larger North Caucasian jihadist movement. He ends the article by saying: “The U.S. also cannot ask recently captured terrorists whether they have heard of Tsarnaev, whether they have seen anyone matching his description or whether they know of any of his associates. We can’t do any of these because we don’t capture terrorists anymore. In order to avoid the challenges of detention and interrogation – and to escape the harsh judgment of human rights activists – by and large we simply kill them.”. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Drone strikes can also encourage sympathy for terrorist organizations, which in turn, can lead to recruitment opportunities for the very same groups we’re targeting. Not to mention, they are an excellent propaganda piece for AQ and Co (plus all the public anger that is attributed to drone strikes. But, one should know, that while leaders in Pakistan or Yemen publicly denounce the strikes, they secretly support them or even sign off on them—[url=http://edition.cnn.com/2010/US/12/01/wikileaks.pakistan.drones/index.html]source[/url]).
Let me reiterate before I end: I am not calling for an end to the drone program, as I am big supporter of their utilization. Instead, I am calling for a change in drone policy; one that looks at certain considerations when using drones and how to appropriately use them. Our over-reliance on drones might have more long-term strategic consequences than what various figures in the Obama Administration may think. A serious change needs to happen in our counter-terrorism policies, and the first step is creating a comprehensive strategy: Something the last two administrations have failed at doing.
Drones, while they most certainly have their place in counter-terrorism, do not need to be a substitute for an actual strategy nor do they need to be over-relied upon. Utilizing multilateral operations, building partnership capacity programs, an effective detainee program, some unilateral SOF raids, an efficient Intelligence Community (including covert operations) and drones, are all things that need to happen if we are ever to achieve our end goals. Not by relying on drones and drones alone.