Small Wars Journal

Why COIN Principles Don't Fly with Drones

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Abstract:  This article argues that the current use of drones in counter-terrorism strikes in Pakistan is contrary to the effective COIN doctrine the US has developed over the last ten years. Although attempts have been made to integrate COIN principles on a tactical level, drones operations as they currently stand are of limited use if not counterproductive. Drones alone are incapable of facilitating population-centric goals of COIN. Their use in ‘clearing’ operations produces negative effects including collateral damage and the militarisation of local populations. This not only alienates populations but can fuel further insurgency. In advocating a COIN based approach, this article acknowledges that numerous political issues will have to be surmounted before Pakistan will be ready to cooperate in such a campaign. Nevertheless plausible options remain for a strategic shift away from counterterrorism operations to a more COIN based ‘hold and build’ approach. This article concludes that drones used in support of COIN strategy (population security and development efforts) would provide the greatest likelihood for a sustainable solution in the region.

By using drones to strike against insurgents in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP) of Pakistan the US is ignoring it most harshly learnt lessons from fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Crucial to a successful counterinsurgency campaign is the population-centric elements of development, population security. It is in these areas the shortcomings of drone strikes become only too apparent. Counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy provides for use of drones for efforts in ‘clearing’ insurgents but states clearly that these hinge on the ability of a host nation to ‘hold and build’ upon these efforts. By implementing an un-cohesive COIN effort in the FATA and NWFP the US risks further militarising the local population and leaving an unwilling Pakistani Army to deal with the more challenging population-centric objectives of COIN.

The use of drone strikes in the FATA and NWFP provinces have insofar fallen under the aegis of ‘counter-terrorism operations’, however, this signifier is somewhat misleading. Undoubtedly a large amount of foreign fighters use Pakistan as a staging point for terrorist-style attacks of ISAF forces in Afghanistan. It is these militants who are the primary targets for drone operations. However drone strikes against these targets inevitably cause collateral damage and property destruction in local communities. These types of damage serve to militarise local populations in the FATA and NWFP, demonstrated by an increase in homemade bomb attacks rising from 887 in all of 2009 to 1036 in November 2011 alone.

The perceived success of drone strikes led to an increase in their usage from 2009-2011. It was this success in eliminating ‘militants’ and ‘high-value targets’ which has driven the Obama administrations emphasis on drone operations. However this tactical shift has come at a price. The emphasis on counter-terrorism over COIN has led to an increase in drone strikes, which is arguably the cause of multiple ‘blowback’ factors including; retaliatory terrorist strikes against US assets in Afghanistan, an increase in militarisation of transnational Pashtu population and the decline of diplomatic relations with the Pakistani government. To avoid these blowback effects a strategic shift back to COIN from ‘counter-terrorism’ strikes will be necessary in order to obtain a more sustainable solution.

Drones are an invaluable asset to counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But with all new technologies it is their human management which is the most problematic. With drones strikes the integrations of COIN principles has occurred only partially at a tactical level, which has led to undesirable results. One example of such is the use of “killing boxes”. Killing boxes are akin to the mosaic strategy used in COIN operations; by which operators are given more autonomy to strike at targets within their pre-delineated area. This decentralisation of fire command in drone strikes is one of the key factors determining the level of collateral damage. Initial strikes on targets are based on sizeable amount of intelligence from both reconnaissance and HUMINT sources. However in the kill-boxes follow-up attacks often occur after the initial strike targeting those coming to the potential aid of wounded militants. It is in these follow-up attacks rescuers are targeted in an attempt to score a windfall of extra militants killed. Unfortunately in these attacks on rescuers, the task of differentiating civilian from militant is up to the digression of a drone operator. In these circumstances it appears little has been done to discern combatant from non-combatant, the consequence being an increased amount civilian casualties. Although this tactic is likely to have been altered under the new step-by-step agreements on military cooperation between the US and Pakistan; the extent to which the local communities have already been alienated by such operations will be crucial in future attempts to bring effective governance to these regions.

US counterinsurgency doctrine states: “Confrontational military action, in exclusion is counterproductive in most cases; it risks generating popular resentment, creating martyrs that motivate new recruits, and producing cycles of revenge.” It furthermore refers to such action as “illegitimate” and “self-defeating.” The incoherence between COIN doctrine and drone attacks is undoubtedly contributing to the militarisation of the FATA and NWFP population. The “cycle of violence” which drones strikes drive among the subject populations, is counterproductive in combating militant groups. It is furthermore an element which undermines other flawed justifications for operating drones in the FATA and NWFP; one such being the COIN based notion of ‘denial of sanctuary’ to militants.

Drones are used in the FATA and NWFP in an attempt to ‘deny sanctuary’ to insurgents from Afghanistan. The effectiveness of drones to achieve this tactical end is severely limited. Drones have the ability to harass and harry insurgents seeking sanctuary in the FATA and NWFP, temporarily denying them security and freedom to operate.  It does not ‘deny sanctuary’ in the long-term to the insurgents, nor eliminate their presence. Hence, attempts to use drones in sanctuary denial is a potentially frivolous task, if it is not complimented with physical attempts to deny territory to insurgents with effective ground forces and collaboration with the local population. The current nature of the US insurgent-centric operations does little to address these physical and human elements of COIN. As Tim Szymanski observes, the “US cannot deny sanctuary in the FATA unilaterally”[1]. Co-operation with the Pakistani military and civilian authority is a required element in denying sanctuary to insurgents and terrorist networks in the FATA and NWFP in the long-term. But the likelihood of a Pakistani COIN campaign is in itself a difficult prospect.

The possibility of a Pakistani COIN effort has been the subject of much analysis and has even been prospectively titled “Operation PRIDE”. For this plan to see fruition will depend on the mustering of political will of the Pakistanis to embark on such an endeavour. Previously, the Pakistani military has had little appetite for COIN operations which it calls “low intensity” warfare. It instead chooses to focus on their larger conventional threat, India. This adversarialism with India has been engrained in the Pakistani military by three wars and the longstanding dispute over the Kashmir region. Unfortunately, these fears are only exacerbated by the growing influence of India in the region, particularly in Afghanistan. Furthermore, there are numerous other factors decreasing the likelihood of Pakistan undertaking a COIN campaign. Pakistan has long fomented insurgencies as proxies. Instances of such have been seen as recently as the 2008 Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks in Mumbai, India.   Convincing Pakistan to abandon its ‘strategic calculus’ of colluding with militants and fomenting insurgent groups in the FATA would be a tough sell. The use of proxies is both an economic and effective form of influence in regional politics.  Abandoning this tactic would be just one of the changes needed for a Pakistani COIN campaign. Further issues exist around the composition of the Pakistani army. The number of troops derived from the Punjab region is one such factor. Any COIN operation might be interpreted by local Pashtuns as an attempt by centralised the Punjabi controlled army to establish absolute control over an area which has traditionally been fiercely autonomous. The issues surrounding a Pakistani COIN campaign do not end with Pakistan. Even if Pakistan could muster the political will to launch such an effort, it would likely result in a “strategic catch 22” for the US and NATO. Long-term support would be required to assist the Pakistani military and civilian development programs in a region where they are both trying to currently extricate themselves. Nothing short of a regional response can deal with the issues of insurgents on the Af/Pak border. A unified effort by Afghan forces and Pakistani forces will be needed along the border to combat militants and eliminate terrorist safe havens. For this task drones may prove to be a decisive factor.

The security, stabilising and development efforts by the US along the Af/Pak border provide the best plausible option for the US to deal with the transnational insurgency. As early as February 2009 the United States Congress approved a Security and Development Plan in which six Border Security Centers were to be established “to coordinate friendly forces and coordinate interdiction of terrorists and others.” However, to date, of the proposed six, only three have been constructed to coordinate the operations along the 1 500km border. Nevertheless, the establishment of these centres creates an excellent opportunity to integrate drones into regional Af/Pak joint COIN operation. The use of drones by such a unified authority in surveillance and troop support may prove invaluable in eliminating the spectre of transnational insurgents in the frontier provinces. Although this use of drones does seem to be holistically beneficial, the issue around the “interdiction” side of drone operations remains problematic. It was a NATO “interdiction” strike which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on a November 26th 2011. This served as a catalyst for the US-Pakistan diplomatic row leading Pakistan to withdraw from two of the three border coordination centres and block NATO supply lines through its territory. For these centres to be effective, the primacy of interdiction strikes will have to be subordinated to an Af/Pak COIN effort. In this capacity the US can play a vital role in facilitating better intelligence operations by raising the effectiveness and reliability of joint operations, “including but not limited to U.S. U.A.V attacks.” Key to this regional effort will be the understanding that drones cannot in themselves provide a security solution for the Af/Pak border, regardless of who might operate them. They can only be effective when used in concert with COIN efforts which include physical territorial troop presence for security and policing, and crucially a sound development strategy.

Development efforts are arguably the most important and underrated element of COIN’s clear-hold-build strategy. Of the $230 million required by the Security and Development Plan in the 2009 fiscal year, the plan received only $62 million. It is these figures which have led some US diplomats to state that the development efforts for the Pakistani border regions are “woefully underfunded.” This rings true from also from the Pakistani side. The FATA Development Authority allocated $16 million for the 2011-2012 to cover development efforts in Infrastructure, industries and housing. Similarly, when contrasted to the US entering the then insurgent controlled district of Helmand in Afghanistan in 2009, $700 million was made available for development projects in the province. It seems that most crucial for the success of any COIN campaign is the ability to hold and consolidate upon efforts made. Although drones can indeed play a vital part in securing provinces; they remain of extremely limited use in development projects. On both sides of the border, economic development is crucial in the fight to rid these regions of insurgencies and jihadist networks. In foresight of the 2014 troop withdrawal, Ethan Kapstein notes “the most challenging problems that the [Afghan] government must face once the US leaves will be the economic.” This means fostering local industry, and developing local economic development, may still the most crucial element in successfully defeating the insurgency for good. In this respect NATO’s COIN commitment; this means it may need to be transformed from military to developmental and oversight role. In this capacity drones have little use.

The use of drones is an ineffective means of combating insurgencies along the Af/Pak border. As demonstrated by the hard learnt lessons of the US in Iraq and the ten year occupation of Afghanistan, COIN provides the best means available to combat insurgencies and deny territory to terrorist networks. COIN must be reemphasised as the primary tactic to be used along the Af/Pak border. This would require greater commitment by all parties (The US, NATO, Pakistan and Afghanistan) in population-centric efforts, focussing on population security and development assistance. Relegating the primacy of drones strikes, and emphasising COIN based operations would therefore provide the greatest chance of bringing a long lasting solution to the region.


[1] Tim Szymanski, ‘Denying Sanctuary’, Master’s Thesis, Joint Forces Staff College, Joint Advanced Warfighting School Norfolk VA (2009) p.74


Categories: Pakistan - drones - COIN - Afghanistan

About the Author(s)

Peter Matulich is a Masters student of International Studies at the University of Adelaide. His studies include a Bachelor of Law from the University of South Australia and has additionally attended institutions including L'Institut des études politiques (IEP) Grenoble and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


"However in the kill-boxes follow-up attacks often occur after the initial strike targeting those coming to the potential aid of wounded militants. It is in these follow-up attacks rescuers are targeted in an attempt to score a windfall of extra militants killed. Unfortunately in these attacks on rescuers, the task of differentiating civilian from militant is up to the digression of a drone operator. In these circumstances it appears little has been done to discern combatant from non-combatant, the consequence being an increased amount civilian casualties."

This is an assumption of the worst kind. Not only is it not backed up by any factual evidence, but it is used as fact to reinforce a change. A change that is in fact, not a change of current doctrine, merely a refocusing. This article attempts to blame civilian casualties on purposeful negligence of the drone operators as well as those approving the strikes.

The idea that the differentiating of civilian from militant is a choice of the drone operator is wrong. There is necessary criteria the individuals must meet in order to discern whether or not an individual on the ground is a militant. The amount of pre-approval, intelligence gathering, and approval of drone strikes has become near paralytic. The answer that additional precautions need to be in place is wrong.

Civilian casualties will always be a part of war. A terrible part? Yes. A completely preventable part? No. Especially when we run into a conflict with a non-conventional enemy that uses civilians as camouflage.

The main issue with COIN in this stage of the war is that troop presence is becoming more and more difficult. As the transition continues, there will be successes and failures. There is already an immense weight on those currently deployed to Afghanistan, to not only understand the local culture, but to allow it to be an excuse for otherwise inexcusable actions.

We need to find a way to restore the motivation of all ISAF to the mission in Afghanistan. You cannot win wars from an office. You cannot win wars without motivated soldiers. Most of all, you cannot win wars with lawyers.

Is the author saying we should be engaged in COIN campaign in Pakistan to the depth and folly of that waged in Afghanistan? If so who should direct this because I cant see the US military wanting anything to do with another nation building exercise.

“Drones are an invaluable asset to counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But with all new technologies it is their human management which is the most problematic.”

“In these circumstances it appears little has been done to discern combatant from non-combatant.”

While this quote falls just short of an accusation, it is a bold claim. There may be other SWJ contributors who are closer to the decision making around drone strikes but it is hard to imagine careful calculations around targeting does not happen to minimise collateral damage.

“These types of damage serve to militarise local populations in the FATA and NWFP, demonstrated by an increase in homemade bomb attacks rising from 887 in all of 2009 to 1036 in November 2011 alone.”

Would there be more or fewer bombings if money were being handed out compared with drone strikes? It would also be helpful if the author could provide the research that demonstrates a direct correlation between the two activities. There are a range of militant groups in the FATA / NWFP region. It has been a contested arena with competing stakeholders long before drone strikes began.

To contemplate any success of a COIN approach in the FATA / NWFP, it would take only a quick bit of desk top research to realise that as with the Korengal and Pech Valleys, Sangin, Gilan District in Ghazni, it does not matter how much money is thrown at areas like these, it simply does not result in stability, a reduction in insurgent violence or increased support (other than for the money of course) towards those handing out the cash. The population centric approach may deliver fragments of stability but it is unsustainable and fails to reduce radicalisation.

If humanitarian organisations want to continue to provide health, education, food and housing resources, that is their prerogative and a donor can choose what cause to support. But in the interests of our national security, it is not the job of our government nor its taxpayers to be funding nation building. If NATO, as the author argues shifts from a military focused entity to one overseeing development, that would be the beginning of the end for any ounce of deterrence that organisation has – we do not need another UN.

Finally, I cant work out if the author is for drone or against them. That part could be made a little clearer.

This article is based on a number of faulty assumptions, and the author clearly doesn't understand the difference between CT and COIN. The foreign fighters in Pakistan are not launching revenge attacks in Afghanistan because of drone strikes, they came to Pakistan as a gate to Afghanistan so they could fight. He also fails to realize that many drone kills have been relatively senior level AQ members who were focused on conducting attacks globally, Afghanistan was a side show. If he still disires to conflate the targeting of AQ in Pakistan with COIN, then he should address the COIN principle of eliminating safe havens. The drone strikes, like most combat operations have had both positive and negative consequences, but overall it has been a very effective tool in containing and reducing AQ. It is well past time to move beyond the U.S. failed narrative and doctrine related to COIN and nation building, and identify what objectives are essential to our national security, and what approaches actually work, instead of wasting billions pursuing overly optimistic nation building efforts. A strong counter argument can be made that drone strikes in Pakistan are achieving their objectives, which has little to do with COIN.


Sat, 02/25/2012 - 11:13am

In reply to by Starbuck

In my experience a "kill box" is just a geographic grid square used to keep airplanes from bumping into each other, ie.-you fly around in that part of the kill box and you fly around in another. It has strident martial name because wars would be lost if everything didn't have a strident martial name.


Sat, 02/25/2012 - 3:10am

"Drones" (or Unmanned Aerial Systems, UAS) are a red herring. There are hundreds of UAS in Afghanistan/Pakistan, ranging from the hand-held Raven to the Beast of Kandahar. They perform a variety of functions, though it seems that only the CIA "Drone Campaign" in Pakistan seems to get the press. UAS are used for "COIN-ish" activities: e.g., establish patterns of life, COP security, convoy overwatch, surveillance, etc.

I think the argument is more about Counter-Terrorism vs. Counter-Insurgency.

By the way, the USAF can help me out on this, but "Kill Box" is simply a tool the USAF derived to deliver Close Air Support.

gian gentile

Fri, 02/24/2012 - 8:43pm

The so called principles of Coin are irrelevant, and they are irrelevant because American style Coin in theory and practice simply doesn’t work. Yet the notion that it does, that it has in Iraq and Afghanistan will not go away.

Coin is dead, long live creative thinking.

The next broken concept that is currently being operationalized and will soon--just as coin did--eclipse strategy is policy is R2P and the military dilettantism of the experts like Ann Marie Slaughter who concoct kooky military plans for giving it a go in Syria.

Since when was the US engaged in "COIN" in Pakistan? Given the wealth of evidence linking Pashtun militants in Pakistan with the ISI it's difficult to see these militant as "insurgents", and there certainly isn't going to be any "security, stabilising and development efforts by the US" on the Pakistani side of the border. The idea that "development efforts" have any realistic prospect of persuading the trans-border populace to stop resisting a US presence (even if the US had the capacity to undertake development projects on the Pakistani side) remains unsupported and I suspect unsupportable.