The Efficacy of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan: The Long View

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“The United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war . . . a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”

U.S. President Barack Obama
National Defense University, Fort McNair, Washington DC
May 23, 2013

Under the Obama administration, targeted killings of suspected terrorists through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have reached levels unprecedented in military history. Given that the majority of drone strikes are shrouded in secrecy, critical questions as to their legality and the governing policy framework remain unanswered. The complications that arise out of the conflicting national security requirements for confidentiality and the democratic needs for transparency and accountability find full expression in the case of Pakistan, where covert drone strikes have been conducted since 2004.

Covert drone strikes in Pakistan target terrorists and militants belonging to al-Qaeda and its associated groups. Proponents of the current drone policy, including members of Congress (such as Senator Dianne Feinstein) and academics (such as Daniel Byman and Christine Fair at Georgetown University), assert that the United States increasingly relies upon drones for one simple reason: they work.

According to this view, covert drone strikes present the best alternative to putting “boots on the ground” in geographic areas beyond the host state’s control and where capturing militants is difficult.[1] Even when they eliminate low- or mid-level operatives, drone strikes are believed to damage terrorist organizations by causing “the rise of lower leaders who are not as experienced as former leaders,” increasing the likelihood of mistakes and miscalculations.[2] Because drone strikes deliver on their goals, proponents argue that they should be allowed to continue, or even be expanded, for as long as necessary.[3] The continuation of drone strikes in Pakistan and the expansion of drone strikes to new regions indicate that many in the White House and the Pentagon agree with this view.

Opponents of covert drone strikes argue that the strikes are inherently counterproductive, as any benefits are dwarfed by strategic losses. The public anger and resentment that result from inadvertent civilian deaths frequently serve as recruitment tools for extremist groups. Moreover, when the government is unable to address this public sentiment, it alienates citizens from their governments and creates instability.[4] From a military standpoint, the disruption of al-Qaeda and Taliban networks may be hailed as a victory, yet it is accompanied by the possible loss of popular support in a key ally state. This is one of the reasons why opponents of covert drone warfare advocate for the United States to end these strikes.[5]

Using Pakistan as a case study, this article analyzes the ongoing debate and concludes that while there is merit to arguments on both sides, prudent policy recommendations for the governance of the United States’ covert drone program fall somewhere in between. In order to highlight how important drones have become to the notion of warfare, the first section of this article examines the advantages of drones compared to more conventional weapons in order to understand drones’ prominent place on the battlefield. The second section explores the societal and political implications of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan against the backdrop of the unique geopolitical environment in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The final section of this article presents policy recommendations aimed at enhancing U.S. counterterrorism strategy while strengthening key alliances and partnerships in this region of immense geostrategic importance.


Read the full paper from the Yale Journal of International Affairs here.

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