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Food for Thought on the Effectiveness of Drone Strikes

For those following the drone debates, this new study published last week by the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute is definitely worth a read.  Though I haven’t finished reading the full paper (and may post more after I do), I wanted to flag it for readers since it doesn’t seem to have received the attention it deserves.

In the paper, “The Effectiveness of Drone Strikes in Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism Campaigns,” James Igoe Walsh, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, reviews a number of existing studies to address some of the major open questions about drones:  most importantly, are they effective at fighting terrorism?

Given the secrecy of the U.S. drone program and the difficulty of gathering information on its affects in remote and often dangerous areas, it’s a difficult question to answer definitively. But after reviewing much of the theory supporting the use of drones and the factual studies that have been done on the strikes, Walsh draws some interesting conclusions.

For one, he finds that “drone strikes against insurgent camps and bases in Pakistan appear to have little relationship to terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.” That’s surprising, he says, because one of the U.S. drone campaign’s goals is to deter insurgent organizations that operate there.  This is part of how the United States can claim drone attacks in Pakistan are part of its operations in the Afghan war “theater.”

As for the drone strikes’ effects in Pakistan, Walsh finds that while at least one ongoing research project finds that drones have reduced terrorist violence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), another suggests that drone strikes are associated with more, rather than less, terrorism in the country as a whole. 

Research in this area is ongoing, of course, so Walsh is careful about the conclusions he draws. But he highlights two implications of what the research has demonstrated so far.

“First, drones are rather poor substitutes for traditional counterinsurgency operations. The reason is that drone strikes (as well as other forms of force) may punish and deter a militant movement, but they cannot directly contribute to the protection of civilians and the strengthening of the authority and legitimacy of the government, which are key objectives of the counterinsurgency doctrine of the U.S. Army.”

“Second, drone strikes conducted by the United States may create perverse incentives for host governments. These governments may exaggerate the threat that they face from militant groups in order to secure American assistance, and they may provide incomplete intelligence in order to guide drone strikes against their enemies rather than against groups that target the United States. This risks involving the United States in long-running but ineffective campaigns of drone strikes on behalf of local clients.”

Compounding the problems is the difficulty of accurately targeting only combatants in a particular insurgent group deemed dangerous to the United States.  Because a terrorist organization like al Qaeda is so fragmented, only some so-called “associated forces” of the organization may pose a danger to the United States, yet Welsh’s study concludes that “it may be practically impossible for the authorities to develop sufficiently accurate intelligence that allows them to determine the specific organizational affiliation of a suspected militant or small group of militants.” Even though drones themselves “can collect a great deal of intelligence about the location, movements and communications of individuals,” this alone “may not be sufficient to determine organizational affiliation among irregular forces.”

That, of course, creates serious problems for the United States’ ability to comply with international law.

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About the Author

is Senior Counsel in Human Rights First’s Law and Security Program. Follow her on Twitter (@deviatar).