Drone Strikes: A Better Alternative

The debate on whether drone strikes are the most efficient, and more importantly, ethical, tools for targeting enemies has been ongoing since the first one was ever used. Although the usage of drone strikes have increased rapidly, especially throughout trump’s 3 year term, the lower rate of casualties and affordability shows their efficacy compared to other methods, as well as how important and necessary they are to American foreign policy and the fight against terrorism.

Alexander Richter, Staff Writer

Ten civilians were killed by a drone strike under the Biden administration after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which raised multiple questions regarding their usage. Drone strikes are not a new phenomenon in US foreign policy—a total of 51 drone strikes were authorized under the second Bush administration, a total of 542 drone strikes were authorized under the Obama administration, and approximately 13,229 drone strikes were authorized during the first three years of the Trump administration. As drone strikes have become a frequent tool in counterterrorism operations, objections regarding the ethics and efficacy of drone strikes have been raised. While some criticisms have merit, the United States drone program should continue and perhaps expand. Remote terrorist safe havens in Pakistan and other countries are a threat, and drones—compared to other alternatives—provide a mechanism to target these areas with less financial strain, less risk of casualties among all parties, and with less collateral damage. 

There is no doubt that drone strikes are an effective and necessary instrument in counterterrorism operations: they eliminate competent terrorist affiliates, undermine their ability to communicate, and disrupt terrorist networks. Drone strikes are a mechanism to target specific terrorist leadership with surgical precision, forcing terrorist groups to promote lower ranking affiliates who are significantly less qualified, less experienced, and prone to miscalculations. Drones also hurt terrorist organizations by eliminating lower ranking affiliates. Daniel L. Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, correctly argues that drones “eliminate operatives who are lower down on the food chain but who boast special skills: passport forgers, bomb makers, recruiters, and fundraisers.” Drone strikes have also significantly weakened the ability for terrorist organizations to communicate. A tip sheet was found among Jihadists in Mali with multiple listed techniques on avoiding drone strikes, some of them being to “[a]void gathering in open areas” and to “[m]aintain complete silence of all wireless contacts.” Without communication, it becomes significantly more difficult for terrorist organizations to operate as a coordinated body, and recruiting and training operatives on a large scale is rendered nearly impossible without risking total elimination. Drones have made large-scale coordination a liability for terrorists, forcing groups to choose between inexperienced and uncoordinated recruits or potentially dead operatives.

Critics like Rafat Mahmood argue that “drone strikes may cause ‘blowback’ from the local population, perhaps because of the collateral damage they cause or the violation of state sovereignty. As a consequence, the local population may turn against the United States and perhaps even side with the terrorists.” Because of the damage drone strikes do against property and civilians, this argument goes, they foster blowback from people in the region they’re in. While this theory is intuitively compelling, it is not sound. Aqil Shah published a MIT study, describing the evidence for the idea that drone strikes cause blowback being “based primarily on anecdotal evidence, unreliable media reports, and advocacy-driven research by human rights groups.” In fact, a Princeton study that analyzed drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan in between 2004-2011 concludes that “drone strikes are associated with decreases in the incidence and lethality of terrorist attacks, as well as decreases in particularly intimidating and deadly terrorist tactics.” Overall, the academic consensus seems to support the idea that drone strikes cause little to no blowback, and even if there was blowback, it hasn’t affected the efficacy of drone strikes.

Drones strikes are one of the most effective ways to engage in counterterrorism operations militarily, however, critics are right in arguing that drone strikes should not be used as the solution to the terrorist threat. Civilian operations have to be paired with military operations, otherwise they risk jeopardizing the military accomplishments of an operation. Drone strikes are not a catch all solution to terrorism, but this does not invalidate their neccesity in counterterrorism. They are a necessary part of American foreign policy, and should be used to strategically target terrorist operatives.