Over the last few years, much ado has been made about drone strikes in popular media. Much coverage has been positive, touting the number of terrorist militants killed in a certain confirmed strike or praising the elimination of a senior terrorist leader. There has been just as much negative press, from reports that question the legality of a strike to condemnations of civilian casualties.
Which side is more in the right? Both make compelling, and often contradictory points. One side claims drone strikes are key to combatting terrorist organizations with minimal civilian casualties and loss of American life. The other tends to focus on a lack of accountability by the organizations which carry out drone strikes, reports of strikes gone wrong and high civilian casualties. In other words, drone strikes are complicated.
First, some background. Drone strikes have been a reality in the War on Terror since 2002. Since then, it has been estimated that more than 500 strikes have been executed in seven countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. Check out this cool graphic provided by the nongovernmental organization, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, depicting strikes that have occurred in Pakistan.
There are two government organizations with the authority to carry out drone strikes: the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Surely you have heard of the former, but may not have heard about the latter. JSOC is a military agency which specializes in manhunting. It has a long and interesting history in this capacity, and has been behind many well-known operations, from leading the hunt for Pablo Escobar to killing Osama Bin Laden. Both JSOC and the CIA are highly secretive organizations, rarely confirming individual strikes and never releasing data on drone strikes.
Just last year, President Obama released the first official government report on drone strikes, which claimed they are a highly effective tool in the War on Terror. Additionally, this report claimed that drone strikes had minimal collateral damage, with only a small number of civilians (64-116) killed during Obama’s two terms, compared to between 2,372 and 2,581 terrorist combatants.
Admittedly, there is much reason to be suspicious of these numbers. For one, the number of civilian deaths confirmed by the report was only a fraction of civilian deaths claimed by nongovernmental research organizations.
However, we do not know how good the data gathered by those independent organizations are either, as there is a near complete lack of reliable sources in the remote areas where drone strikes usually occur. As civilians, we do not have access to enough reliable evidence to come to a hard conclusion on this empirical question, due to the prevalence of Taliban propaganda, the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, and the difficulty of conducting research in war zones.
In fact, proponents of drone strikes argue that in comparison to the military operations that would be required to perform similar functions, drone strikes actually minimalize collateral damage. For example, boots-on-the-ground assaults and large-scale air strikes tend to have much greater casualties (about seven times as many). Additionally, drone strikes typically occur after large intelligence gathering operations, and they have the ability to hover over an area until the optimal time to strike.
In terms of effectiveness against terrorism, proponents argue that drone strikes effectively remove terrorist leadership, disrupt terrorist organizations and deny terrorist sanctuaries. Some examples are this strike, which killed Osama bin Laden’s chief aide, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman in 2011, and this one, which recently killed Abu al-Khayr al-Masribi, Osama’s son-in-law and al-Qaeda ideological leader.
There has also been some quantitative evidence in favor of the effectiveness of drone strikes as well. One study found that drone strikes lead to a decrease in both the incidence and lethality of terror attacks, at least in the short-run.
Finally, proponents argue that drones’ ability to remotely target terrorists reduces the direct risk counterterrorism operations place on American soldiers. This argument has long been one of the most convincing in favor of drone strikes. A country has an obligation to minimalize threats posed to its citizens, and since drone strikes certainly do so in the case of American soldiers, this is a strong point in their favor.
All in all, there is certainly reason to believe that drone strikes are an effective tool in the War on Terror. Next post, I will discuss more in depth some of the potential negative impacts of drone strikes.