Many analysts, practitioners, and scholars are skeptical of the efficacy of drone strikes for counterterrorism, suggesting that they provide short-term gains at best and are counterproductive at worst. However, despite how widespread these views are, reliable evidence on the consequences of drone strikes remains limited. My research on drone warfare and U.S. counterterrorism—some of which was recently published in International Security—addresses this issue by examining the U.S. drone war in Pakistan from 2004 to 2014. Contrary to the skeptics, I find that drone strikes in Pakistan were effective in degrading the targeted armed groups. And, troublingly, they succeeded in doing so even though they harmed civilians.
Three Key Findings
I have conducted research in Pakistan and the United States over the last few years, gathering new qualitative data on the politics of the war and its effects on the two main targets, al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban. I have also evaluated detailed quantitative data on drone strikes and violence by al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban. This research offers three important findings.
First, the U.S. drone war was damaging for the organizational trajectories of al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban. I found that after the United States surged its surveillance and targeting capabilities in 2008, both groups suffered increasing setbacks; they lost bases, their operational capabilities were reduced, their ranks were checked by growing numbers of desertions, and the organizations fractured politically. These effects appear to have persisted until 2014. In a related paper, my University of Michigan colleague Dylan Moore and I show that during the drone program in the Waziristan region, violence by the two groups fell substantially.
Second, the U.S. drone war disrupted al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban not just by killing their leaders and specialized rank-and-file members, but also by heightening the perceived risk of being targeted. Across a variety of empirical materials, including some collected through fieldwork, I found that both groups were direly constrained by the fear—a constant sense of anticipation—of drone strikes, which crippled routine movement and communication. In addition, leaders and rank-and-file jihadis regularly viewed each other with the suspicion of being spies for the drone program, which contributed to their organizational fragmentation.
Third, the notion of increased recruitment for al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban due to civilian harm in drone strikes is questionable. In the local battlefield, I did not find evidence of any tangible increase in recruitment. Interviews with some surviving mid-level members of al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban negated the impression that the groups benefited from a stream of angry recruits. Instead, a recurring theme was that they experienced desertions and manpower shortages because of the stress of operating under drones. To the extent that new recruits were available, both groups struggled to integrate them in their organizations because of the fear that they might be spies for the drone program.
The U.S. drone war in Pakistan is a crucial case of U.S. counterterrorism policy, but it is one of many other campaigns. The U.S. government is waging such campaigns in Yemen and Somalia, and considering an expansion in the Sahara. In my work, I identify two factors which are important for the dynamics evident in Pakistan to hold generally.
First, the United States must have extensive knowledge of the civilian population where the armed group is based. The counterterrorism force needs such knowledge to generate intelligence leads on their targets, who are often hiding within the civilian population. This comes from detailed population data sharing by local partners, large-scale communication interception, and pattern-of-life analysis of target regions from sophisticated drones.
Second, the United States must be able to exploit available intelligence leads in a timely manner. As members of targeted armed groups consistently try to escape detection, most intelligence has a limited shelf life. The capability to act quickly depends on the bureaucratic capacity to process intelligence, decentralized decision-making for targeting, and rapid-strike capabilities like armed drones.
In Pakistan, the United States met these criteria with an abundance of technology and high-quality local partner cooperation. Starting in 2008, the United States mobilized a large fleet of drones and surveillance technologies to develop granular knowledge of the civilian population in the targeted regions. Despite deep political rifts on the conflict in Afghanistan, the Central Intelligence Agency obtained extensive covert support from Pakistani intelligence against al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban, which enabled it to regularly locate targets. With ample targeting authority and armed drones operating from nearby bases, U.S. forces were able to exploit available leads.
In Yemen, however, the United States has struggled to develop knowledge of the civilian population and act on available intelligence. My interviews with U.S. officials and a leaked government document suggest that, until 2013, U.S. forces did not sustain aerial surveillance of targeted regions, the Yemeni state’s capacity in support of operations remained poor, and the targeting rules were stringent.
Implications for U.S. Counterterrorism Policy
The U.S. government’s preference for drone strikes is motivated by the desire to prevent attacks against the American homeland. My research suggests that the drone program has the potential to inflict enough damage on the targeted armed groups to upset their ability to plot and organize attacks in the United States.
The United States also deploys drone strikes to manage jihadi threats to allied regimes. In such cases, the political value of strikes depends, in part, on the capability of the local partner. An effective drone deployment can go a long way in providing a necessary condition for restoring order. But the local partner must ultimately step up to consolidate state control.
For example, President Obama’s drone policy degraded al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban, securing the American homeland and substantially reducing the threat to the nuclear-armed Pakistani state. The Obama administration’s policy was sufficient because the Pakistani state was relatively capable and could build on the gains made by U.S. counterterrorism strikes. Indeed, Pakistan’s ground operations, although contentiously timed, consolidated those gains.
In contrast, in today’s Afghanistan, the U.S. government cannot rely on instruments of counterterrorism alone. U.S. officials realize that just degrading the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State is unlikely to stabilize the country. The Afghan government remains so weak that it will struggle to consolidate territorial control even after substantial degradation of its armed foes.
Finally, a key limitation of counterterrorism strikes is that they cannot alleviate the ideological appeal of jihadi actors like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Strikes cannot substitute for efforts at countering online jihadi propaganda and de-radicalization. Thus, they should not be seen as a silver bullet that can defeat armed groups operating from safe havens and weak states.
Civilian Protection and Drone Strikes
Civilian harm in U.S. counterterrorism remains a vital challenge. While moral objections to civilian casualties are a powerful reason to reconsider drone operations, my research suggests that strategic concerns, like a surge in local violence or increased recruitment of targeted organizations, are not. In Pakistan, for example, drone strikes harmed civilians while also undermining al-Qaeda and Pakistan Taliban. Similarly, the U.S.-led counter-ISIL campaign in Iraq and Syria was very difficult for the civilian population, and yet also inflicted losses on the Islamic State.
If civilian casualties do not affect the strategic outcomes of counterterrorism campaigns, then the U.S. government must be convinced to protect civilians for purely moral reasons. How responsive might the U.S. government be to such appeals? It is unclear. The Obama administration was not transparent about the use of drone strikes. Under President Trump, the lack of transparency has worsened. Concerned policymakers and human rights activists must continue to push the U.S. government to be more transparent and to protect civilians caught up in counterterrorism campaigns.