Necessary (Perhaps) But Not Sufficient: Assessing Drone Strikes Through A Counterinsurgency Lens


The relatively recent New York Times article on President Obama’s “Kill List” (and other similar articles here and here along with the strike on Al-Qaeda’s former second-in-command) highlights not just a moral conundrum for the commander-in-chief but a strategy that if enacted by itself may cause more harm than good.  What’s worse, the United States has learned that this approach is self-defeating at the operational level in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  A “kill list” is little different than a “body count” strategy—kill enough of them, and the threat goes away.  However, as noted in the article, the kill list which includes individuals from a number of states (including the United States) never gets shorter, the names and faces are simply replaced. 

More recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan, our military forces recognized that such kinetic or direct action meant little without more robust political, economic, and local security development efforts.  For specific purposes, drone strikes are tactically useful.  They can remove key individuals from the tactical, operational, and planning roles they filled which weakens the overall capabilities of the adversary.  But, like a “body count” strategy, success cannot be measured by the number of individuals killed—direct strikes must be part of a comprehensive approach to be truly effective in counterinsurgency operations. As recent gains have demonstrated, achieving the overall goals of defeating an insurgency requires that kinetic operations support the more mundane but ultimately more important political and economic operations along with the development of local security capabilities. That is the best way to achieve stability and security.  Make no mistake, kinetic operations are a key part of an overall successful operation.  But, they are just that -- a part of an overall successful operation. 

Using drone strikes in countries in which we do not have the same level of stability and support activities as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan is where the dilemma lies.  The assumption, though, is that the benefit of killing a key individual outweighs the animosity generated within the local population.  We cannot forget that there is always some degree of animosity generated from these operations.  Guilty as well as innocent people are killed.  Sovereignty is violated.  Honor is trampled.  In both Iraq and Afghanistan, difficult decisions have been made on the benefits of kinetic operations versus the negative repercussions generated.  Winning the battle cannot—and should not—be traded for winning the war.

The working “guess” in conducting drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and other countries is that the benefits to national security policy outweigh the negative feelings and animosity generated by such strikes.  But is this correct?  Can kinetic operations without political, economic, and local security development operations be more effective on a strategic level than on the operational and tactical levels?  And really how dangerous is this indignation and ire that is generated towards the United States?  Drawing the causal link between a drone strike in Pakistan and an attempted bombing in the United States is, for all intents and purposes, impossible.  A man whose cousin was killed in an airstrike five years ago may not become the next terrorist mastermind, but he may be much less likely to tell foreign or local security forces that such a person is living in the same area.   To paraphrase Mao Zedong—who compared insurgents to fish and the population that supported them to water—even if our actions might not be generating more fish, they are still generating more water.     

The number of Al Qaeda members killed by such activities, though, is hard to ignore.  According to Bill Roggio in his blog Long War Journal, “2,300 leaders and operatives from Taliban, Al Qaeda, and allied extremist groups [have been] killed and 138 civilians [have been] killed” in Pakistan in 300 drone strikes since 2006.  Any civilian casualty is unacceptable, but removing a couple of thousand individuals who could potentially do harm to Americans and further destabilize the Afghan government seems to be a step forward in achieving our strategic goals.  If Mr. Roggio’s numbers are accurate, this is strong evidence in support of drone strikes. 

But even given these numbers, I am not sure how kinetic operations without the other non-kinetic activities would be more effective at the strategic level. We may believe that a comparatively small number of drone strikes in Yemen versus a large number of drone strikes in Afghanistan generate relatively less blowback, but in today’s internet and strategic communication reality this is not necessarily the case.  One drone strike magnified through the internet a thousand-fold may be just as detrimental to our overall goals as a hundred drone strikes in an analog world.  Detractors may say that such strategic communication really does not matter, even though we give lip service to its importance; removing terrorists from the battlefield matters above all else.  Such may be true.  Even if we wanted to support kinetic operations with political and economic operations, the scale would probably make such actions impossible given the lives, money, and time spent just in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We must make a frank assessment of the degree to which these strikes support our overall strategic goals when they are conducted without the full implementation of other necessary activities.    

So where does that leave us?  Stuck between bad options, it seems.  Politics demands that we “do something” to fight terrorist organizations, but that “something” may harm our overall goals.  Drone strikes may be part of an answer, but they are not the answer.  

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Tags : Afghanistan, drone strikes, drones, Iraq, national security decision-making, Pakistan, UAS, yemen


Striking your opponents leadership and key players has long been a military objective. As Joshua points out is it still a valid option today?

Currently these attacks only offer a pause or gain us time. It is simply "mowing the lawn" just at a higher level. Instead of using the time gained we are doing nothing else - or so it seems.