Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Drones: The Future of National Security Policy?

Caught between its purported precision strikes and its murkiness, civilian casualties and contested legality, the U.S. drone program—which largely operates in Pakistan and Yemen—continues to define America’s counterterrorism efforts and its relationships with the rest of the world. Started under former Pres. George W. Bush, the C.I.A.’s drone program has since expanded to include extensive involvement by the N.S.A. and, by 2015, conducting surveillance on American soil. In what first was the centerpiece of weakening al-Qaeda and its affiliates now sits poised to drive the future of national security enforcement. But how effective exactly is our drone program at killing our enemies yet minimizing collateral damage, and do the costs outweigh the rewards?

Well for one thing, Americans seem comfortable with the idea. A Gallup poll back in March showed 65% of Americans support the use of drones abroad in our military and
counterterrorism efforts. While official figures are classified, civilian casualties are estimated at between 323 and 372, with approximately 2,864 militants killed. Supporters of the drone program often point to the ‘relatively low’ casualty count as proof that drones are precise and working, all while only requiring a remote operator. No troops on the ground, no funerals for fallen soldiers. Just unmanned aircrafts thought to be best equipped to address America’s diffuse, global threats.

Although most Americans and political leaders support the drone program, there are many factors that undercut it. For one, drones operate in all but complete secrecy. As pointed out by recent Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, the lack of transparency and uncertainty surrounding those killed raises suspicions that some drone strikes could constitute extrajudicial killings or war crimes. And without paying meaningful compensation to the families of the deceased, the U.S. risks provoking new enemies in areas we wish to secure and influence for national security interests.

Drone use has also become a point of tension between the U.S. and its counterterrorism partners in recent years. Regarding Pakistan for example, drone strikes have thoroughly warped the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Just days ago, a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the country’s Taliban branch. Although diplomatic cables show that Pakistani officials tacitly accept and sometimes approve of these kinds of strikes, many publicly condemn the recent assassination as a breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in a bid to stir up popular discontent toward the U.S. The duplicity is eroding an already strained partnership, but they do have legitimate concerns about what this means for peace talks between the Pakistani government and the Taliban.

Overall, America's drone program is complicating things more than it is making things clear. Questions of legality, possibility of war crimes, and diplomatic complications with Pakistan all pose unique concerns of their own. One thing is clear however: drone use retains strong political and popular support at home, a sign that it might take more than collateral damage and war crimes allegations to force the President and intelligence communities to reconsider drone strikes with an eye to their myriad long-term consequences. 


  1. 2,864 is a grossly inflated number of "militants killed" when you consider the fact that the US policy regards any military-age male (EG any man above the age of 15) to be a "militant." When you look at the actual biographies of many of the victims, it's patently untrue that they were in any way involved in militancy and in many cases, were community leaders working against the Taliban (Pakistan) and Al-Qaeda (Yemen).

  2. I just averaged what the New America Foundation estimated.

  3. I would suggest starting with http://www.livingunderdrones.org/numbers/ and continuing on to this excellent report by the Columbia Human Rights Clinic if you're interested in counting methodology and estimates of actual militants killed http://web.law.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/microsites/human-rights-institute/files/COLUMBIACountingDronesFinal.pdf.