AARON BADWAY AND CLOE BILODEAU
GUEST CONTRIBUTORS AT SAIS EUROPE
Since the beginning of the war on terror, drone strikes have presented the most effective way to combat terror. US drone strikes against Islamic militants have the tacit support of the Pakistani and Yemeni governments and are vital to the national security of the US and its allies. While the drone strike program is rightly criticized whenever it leads to civilian casualties, the program is the US’ best option to ensure security in the region for five key reasons.
First, drone strikes are necessary. The US faces a real threat from terrorist groups like al al-Qaida, which actively recruit individuals in remote areas to attack US citizens. These groups currently kill civilians whom they perceive to be threats to their ideology, while promoting the notion that the US is an enemy of Islam. Further, while the US funds development and capacity building programs in both Pakistan and Yemen, drone strikes ensure these programs can be implemented. They are therefore necessary to US security and complementary to development initiatives aiming to stem terrorism.
Second, drone strikes are effective. Drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have killed approximately 3500 militants, including top leaders, and reduced these groups’ communication networks and recruitment mechanisms. Bin Laden himself stated that al-Qaida would not be able to fight repeated drone strikes against their leadership. In Pakistan, strikes have disrupted threats to the US and reduced the violence of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida. There is no evidence that drone strikes create more terrorism against the US, but a lot of data suggests that drone strikes dismantle militant networks.
Additionally, drone strikes are cost-efficient. The US can now sustain a longer-term presence in remote areas than was not possible using conventional warfare tactics. This poses a blow to terrorists’ long-term strategy. The drone program costs around one percent of the US military budget, compared to ground troops or manned aerial vehicles which can cost between six to 42 times more.
Drone strikes also reduce civilian deaths. Drones kill fewer foreign civilians as a percentage of total fatalities than any other military weapon. The New America Foundation estimates civilian casualties caused by drones are around six to 17 percent. This low number has decreased as drones become more precise. Further, drones have reduced terrorist groups’ ability to kill civilians in their home countries. Drone strikes are also more humane than relying on the Pakistani or Yemeni militaries, which have a history of unprofessionalism and of human rights violations. Civilians do not flee from drones en masse, but whenever the Yemeni military launches an offensive against terrorist strongholds, civilians leave by the thousands.
For all the strategic and moral benefits of drones, there needs to be greater transparency in their use. The greatest threat is criticism of impunity for the use of drones, and classifying information regarding the program prevents true accountability. The drone program is young, and there is certainly room for reform. Still, drone strikes remain the best option.
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