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US Drone Strikes: A Failed Military Strategy

Guest contributors at SAIS Europe Derek Schlickeisen and Yana Goncharenko wrote the US’ high-profile drone campaigns are a strategic nightmare that do more harm than good, turning potential partners into enemies.

DEREK SCHLICKEISEN AND YANA SCHICK
GUEST CONTRIBUTORS AT SAIS EUROPE

Terrorism poses a serious threat which became clear on 9/11, after which countries around the world pledged their support to the US.

Unfortunately, the story since has been one of military blundering and a waste of political capital. The US’ high-profile drone campaigns are a strategic nightmare that do more harm than good, turning potential partners into enemies.

The drone campaign confuses tactics with objectives. The objective in Pakistan and Yemen is the removal of jihadi groups and their popular support. One tactic is to drop bombs using drones. Yet according to the New America Foundation, only two percent of the casualties are terrorist leaders. Moreover, the decentralized nature of terrorist groups means that command can be carried out without orders from the top, making leadership targeting ineffective.

Last month, when asked at a Congressional hearing whether he thinks al-Qaida is on the run, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, “No, it is morphing and franchising itself, not only here but in other parts of the world.” From al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, across North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, the group remains successful.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2006 and 2009, 75 drone strikes resulted in 746 casualties. 24 percent of the dead were confirmed civilians and another 27 percent were probable civilians. Five percent were children.

It is a legal nightmare. According to international law, military operations need to differentiate between civilian and military targets and avoid massive attacks that anticipate civilian casualties. Drone strikes fail on both counts.

Finally, drone strikes are losing the battle for hearts and minds. The drone campaign reveals an outdated obsession with body counts: if we are killing terrorists, we must be winning. But terrorists are often made in response to seeing friends or family killed and their country violated. Faisal Shahzad, the 2010 Times Square bomber, told police that he was angered by the US’ drone campaign in Pakistan and civilian deaths.

At the national level, governments that cooperate with US drone strikes become deeply unpopular: Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh faced backlash before he was overthrown. Drones undermine US popularity and set back diplomatic, economic and security goals.

There are alternatives. The populations of tribal regions where terrorists operate normally hate al-Qaida: they are brutal and they destroy the economy. The US presents itself as a worse option with indiscriminate drone killings.

NOTE: The article does not necessarily reflect the authors’ personal views. These students participated in a pre-assigned debate on the topic, and are making the opposite case here as an interesting exercise to highlight both sides of the question.

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