The War on Terror is no longer a traditional conflict. The diffuse, decentralized nature of terrorist organizations had already made this an unconventional war; now, the use of unmanned aircraft has added another non-traditional layer. Conventional military strategies have failed in Iraq and Afghanistan: the United States has, in many cases, stopped sending people into combat, opting instead for airstrikes by unmanned aerial vehicles. Over the past decade, US military and intelligence agencies have expanded their use of unmanned Predator and Reaper drones; these robotic aircraft are generally used to carry out targeted strikes against known members of terrorist groups. US reliance on drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries has changed the nature of the war on terror.
This strategy is not without controversy. The Obama administration’s heavy use of unmanned drones in the War on Terror has come under fire from a variety of opponents, including human rights groups, think tanks, and even foreign governments. Critics claim that drone strikes cause civilian casualties, incorrectly target only the most prominent leaders of terrorist groups, and create backlash against the US. To hear some tell it, the use of drones exacerbates, rather than solves, the problem of terrorism.
The reality is not so bleak: drones are very good at what they do. Unmanned attacks are highly effective when it comes to eliminating specific members of terrorist organizations, disrupting terrorist networks without creating too much collateral damage. Their effectiveness makes drone strikes a vital part of US counterterrorism strategy.
Predator and Reaper drones are not the indiscriminate civilian-killers that some make them out to be: strikes are targeted and selective. This has become increasingly true as drone technology has improved, and as the military has learned how best to use them. A confluence of factors has made drone strikes much better at eliminating enemy militants while avoiding civilians: drones now carry warheads that produce smaller blast radiuses, and the missiles carrying those warheads are guided using laser, millimeter-wave, and infrared seekers. The result has been less destructive drone strikes that reach their intended target more reliably. A number of non-technological shifts have also made drones a more useful tool: Peter Bergen, a national security analyst for CNN, summarized on July 13th, 2012 that more careful oversight, a deeper network of local informants, and better coordination between the US and Pakistani intelligence communities have also contributed to better accuracy. Data gathered by the Long War Journal indicates that the civilian casualty rate for 2012 and the beginning of 2013 is only 4.5 percent. Even Pakistani Major General Ghayur Mehmood acknowledges that, “most of the targets [of drone strikes] are hard-core militants.” Imprecise drone strikes that cause many civilian casualties are now a thing of the past. This improved accuracy may also help to mitigate anti-American sentiment that stems from civilian casualties.
Moreover, it is not clear that the alternatives to drone warfare are better at killing only their desired targets. Were the Obama administration to abandon its use of drone strikes, it would be left with two other options: troops on the ground or manned airstrikes. Sending in a full fighting force is arguably a more bloody option than drones; although the US government does not publish enemy body counts, which makes calculating the civilian casualty rate difficult, the toll of the war in Afghanistan has certainly been high. The Congressional Research Service estimates that during the period from 2007 to 2012, the war claimed the lives of 12,996 Afghan civilians, 6,595 Afghan soldiers and police officers, and 1,802 American servicemen and women. In addition, some countries – Pakistan in particular – have forbidden the presence of US troops inside their borders, but (reluctantly) accept the use of drones as a less intrusive alternative.
Drones are also more targeted than other air power. Because they are unmanned, drones can wait and observe situations for extended periods of time before taking action. As far back as 2009, a Wall Street Journal editorial claimed that “unlike fighter jets or cruise missiles, Predators can loiter over their targets for more than 20 hours [and] take photos in which men, women and children can be clearly distinguished.” The shortcomings of the alternatives make drones the best choice for eliminating terrorist leaders.
Critics also claim that eliminating only the senior leaders of terrorist organizations does not make significant progress in eradicating the group as a whole. This argument falls short on two fronts. First, killing the leaders of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and similar networks does hinder their operations: decapitating terrorist groups interrupts their planning, recruitment, and execution of attacks – not necessarily because each leader is irreplaceably vital to the success of the group (although some are), but because the threat of death from the skies shifts the strategic calculations of living leaders, changing the actions of the group. The Los Angeles Times of March 22nd, 2009, quoting an anonymous counterterrorism official, reported that Al Qaeda leaders are wondering who's next to be killed in a drone strike and have started hunting down people inside al Qaeda who they think are responsible for collaborating with the US on drone strike planning. The threat of drone strikes sows divisive suspicion inside enemy groups and distracts them from accomplishing their objectives.
Moreover, drone strikes have disrupted al Qaeda’s system for training new recruits. The Times of London reports that in 2009, Al Qaeda leaders decided to abandon their traditional training camps because bringing new members to a central location offered too easy a target for drone strikes. Foreign Policy emphasized this trend on November 2nd, 2012, arguing that, “destroying communication centers, training camps and vehicles undermines the operational effectiveness of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and quotes from operatives of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network reveal that drones have forced them into a ‘jungle existence’ where they fear for the lives on a daily basis.” The threat of death from the skies has forced extremist organizations to become more scattered.
More importantly, though, drone strikes do not only kill top leaders; they target their militant followers as well. The New America Foundation, a think tank that maintains a database of statistics on drone strikes, reports that between 2004 and 2012, drones killed between 1,489 and 2,605 enemy combatants in Pakistan. Given that Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and the various other organizations operating in the region combined do not possibly have more than 1,500 senior leaders, it follows that many, if not most, of those killed were low-level or mid-level members – in many cases, individuals who would have carried out attacks. The Los Angeles Times explains that, “the Predator campaign has depleted [Al Qaeda’s] operational tier. Many of the dead are longtime loyalists who had worked alongside Bin Laden […] They are being replaced by less experienced recruits.” Drones decimate terrorist organizations at all levels; the idea that these strikes only kill senior officials is a myth.
The Obama Administration shows no signs of slowing down its drone war. A drone strike killed two prominent Al Qaeda members in South Waziristan on January 3rd, and four more on January 10th. Contrary to common criticisms of drone warfare, though, this continued use of unmanned airstrikes is absolutely a good course of action from the CIA and the White House. Drone warfare has proved to be a step forward, not backward, in the United States’ struggle to subdue international terrorist organizations. Unmanned airstrikes are highly accurate and effective at disrupting terrorism; drones are and must remain an integral part of the War on Terror.