Do not Let Tactical Needs Drive Strategy: How to Renew the U.S.’s Drone Warfare on Counterterrorism


UK Ministry of Defence
A soldier launches a Desert Hawk, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), in a training exercise in Kenya.

In Brief

The United States’ use of drone warfare in antiterrorism is very controversial. Policy makers, the media, and academic scholars are debating over its efficiency in killing terrorists, thus eliminating terrorism, and its morality considering the civilian deaths. However, the debate should go beyond ”dead body count,” and focus on more strategic interests in counterterrorism and the consequent impact. This article argues that Obama’s drone strategy actually prioritizes tactical needs over more strategic interests, which may not only fuel terrorism in geopolitically vulnerable areas, but also increase the danger of drone proliferation and arms race with the ”potential to heighten regional risks and even threaten global peace and stability.”1 To meet these challenges, this article provides several policy implications including using drone warfare transparently, less frequently and more accurately, collaboratively, with more soft power rather than hard power, and under domestic regulations and international norms.


Key Concepts

  • No matter how large or small the number of civilian deaths is in the drone warfare, there is a popular anti-drone or even anti-America sentiment in Pakistan, which definitely undermines America’s antiterrorism efforts and its role in regional affairs in the future.

  • Debating the drone program should go beyond ”dead body count.” Rather, policy makers should pay more attention to the more strategic consequences, including drone proliferation and a possible drone race, and then increasing regional insecurity.

  • When war can be fought cleanly, smartly, and easily with the use of drones and other advanced military technology, will war be more likely to happen? Human beings need to act now to avoid that tragedy.

Nothing has been more influential in shaping the United States and the world in the first decade of the 21st century as the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001 (9/11). As a response, then-U.S. president George W. Bush’s administration initiated two wars: in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003 to fight the nonstate terrorist group Al Qaeda. Pakistan has always played significant roles in America’s antiterrorism strategies. It shares a long border with Afghanistan. Many terrorists considered Pakistan’s north tribal areas as a ”safe haven” to shelter them. Pakistan also provides a safe and efficient route to transport supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan. Thus, a sustainable and stable partnership with Pakistan is crucial for the United States to defeat Al Qaeda. Since the events of 9/11, Washington has provided military and development aid to Islamabad as important partners in counterterrorism.

Since 2008, U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration has relied more on the use of drones in counterterrorism. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had initiated or is still using drone strike formally in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and allegedly in Libya and Mali.2 According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.3 Obama initiated 332 drone strikes in Pakistan, killing around 3,000 men, a majority of whom were combatants, but some were civilians. In Pakistan, local people and politicians strongly protested America’s drone strikes and vowed to stop NATO supply routes unless such attacks ended. In 2012, a drone strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, which led to serious diplomatic tensions between the two countries. NATO’s supply route into Afghanistan was also closed.4 After then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s apology and the U.S. Congress’ approval of $1.6 billion in economic and military aid to Pakistan, both sides agreed to further develop their bilateral relations and cooperation in antiterrorism.5 Washington and Islamabad’s conflict appears to be resolved.

However, the drone program has an uneasy future. In November 2013, a drone strike attacked one Islamic seminary in North Pakistan, a rare one outside the tribal regions, which may signal an escalation of the U.S.’s drone warfare. Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, formally urged the United States to stop such strikes, and local politicians and the people protested by sitting on a vital supply route for NATO forces.6 Considering that NATO will withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, President Obama’s reliance on drones will increase. Pakistan’s dissatisfaction will grow, bilateral tensions will rise, and local people will be more discontented.

Debating on Drone: Beyond ”Dead Body Count”

Since taking office, Obama has faced a two-edged dilemma: on the one hand, he saw the strong growing antiwar sentiment at home and promised to end the two wars as soon as possible, which set limitations over his policy options in counterterrorism, and on the other hand, the public and Congress still believe in the necessity of killing terrorists around the world. The development of weapon technology gives Obama the option of drone warfare. It maximizes America’s advantages in the technology of intelligence collection and analysis, fast-response deployment, and attack. It can kill the high-value targets (HVTs) efficiently, while minimizing deaths and casualties to American foot soldiers. In short, drone warfare is ”efficient and even morally necessary given the state of the U.S. economy and the war-weariness of the American people.”7

With the increasing deaths of civilians and local protests against drones, there’s a heated debate on drone strikes among policy makers, the media, NGOs, and academic scholars. The point of focus is the number of civilian and terrorist deaths from a strike. Generally, the U.S. government’s estimates are more conservative than the United Nation’s or other independent research organizations. For instance, the U.S. government believed that only 30 civilians had been killed out of 1,300 militants from mid-2008 to 2010, and no civilian has died from a strike since August 2010 after new accurate missiles were used.8 The New America Foundation estimates that around 2076 to 3421 people have been killed by all drone strikes in Pakistan, among whom at least 7 percent (258 to 307) were civilians.9 The UMASS Drone identified 132 civilian deaths in the 2004 to 2013 drone strikes, accounting for around 5 percent of total deaths.10 The BIJ argues that the number of civilian deaths, 416 to 948, is larger than that identified by other sources of information.

Supporters of the drone program argue that in conventional conflicts, 30 to 80 percent of all fatalities are civilian deaths. However, the drone strikes kill around 2,000 combatants, whereas civilian death rate is below 10 percent, which means that drone strikes are more efficient in killing terrorists and avoiding civilian deaths.11

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Alan Strakey
The terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001 (9/11) initiated two wars. A tribute in light was displayed on the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001 in New York in 2011.

Critics doubt these numbers. They believe that the death of civilians is underestimated, and the efficiency of drone strikes in killing combatants is overestimated. One report from the New York Times says that any military-age men killed in the strike will be counted as combatants, unless confirmed as innocent.12 Civilian deaths make it much easier for terrorists to recruit new fighters and to win local sympathy and support. In Yemen, hundreds of tribesmen join Al-Qaeda to avenge their relatives or fellowmen’s deaths against the United States. In Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) moved into the vacuum left by the fall of Al-Qaeda, posing a bigger threat to Islamabad.13 Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old Pakistani student who fights for girls’ rights to receive education under the death threat of Taliban gunmen, told the U.S. First Family during their meeting in the Oval Office that drones are ”fueling terrorism.” On June 21, 2010, a Pakistani-America placed a bomb in Times Square as ”payback for the U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and for its worldwide use of drone strikes.”14

Critics also look at the low ratio of HVTs-to-total-deaths. The BIJ states that only 1.5 percent of total deaths are of HVTs.4 The ratio estimated by researchers at the law schools of Stanford University and New York University is ”extremely low”—about 2 percent.15 Another research showed that one-fifth of total deaths from drone strikes were of HVTs during the Bush administration, but the ratio dropped to 1/147 during the 2009–2010 period.2 The drone strikes were initiated to kill HVTs, but in practice, the CIA and the Pentagon’s killing list covers ”foot combatants.” An expanded list only creates more hatred and pushes those moderate and liberal Jihadists to be more radical.

However, debating over drone warfare should go beyond ”dead body count” in counterterrorism. Drone warfare ”has the potential to heighten regional risks and even threaten global peace and stability”.2

Firstly, the United States’ strategic objectives in counterterrorism in geopolitically vulnerable areas like Pakistan and Yemen is to ”break the cycle of state failure to constrict the space available to terrorist networks.”16 America will ”seek to leverage the capacity of foreign partners to confront terrorist threats within their borders and assist them by building a durable capacity to do so on their own.”17 However, the drone program undermines this objective. In Pakistan or Yemen, local people see their governments as traitors who helped outsiders kill their countrymen. Extremist politicians win more popular support. One prominent example is Imran Khan who led the massive protest against the drone strike in Pakistan. Now he is a leading opposition figure for the coming election. A Pew Research Center poll in 2012 found that 74 percent Pakistanis view America as an enemy, whereas only 12 percent support America’s drone strikes,18 which is a warning to the White House. Generally, drone strikes may ultimately weaken the legitimacy of the target countries’ regime and thus the stability of their partnership with America in antiterrorism.19

Apart from the issues on terrorism, more strategic problems have appeared, including technology and weaponry proliferation and a possible arms race, particularly in Asia. The use of drones heavily relies on remote control technology and information links. Because drones are usually sent to turbulent areas for targeted attack, sensitive technology may fall into the wrong hands because of a slight technical problem. In December 2011, a U.S. Stealth RQ-170 was hijacked by Iran, which then reverse-engineered it. Today, Iran has developed around 17 drones, including six armed UAVs that are in use. Its Shahed-129 is capable of attacking air and land targets, which ”marks a significant technological advance.”20

America’s use of drones also attracts a lot of international attention. Many more countries are seeking to develop their own or buy drones from the international market. Especially in East Asia, the arms race on drones is coming. South Korea and Japan are seeking to buy Global Hawks from the United States. Taiwan, Vietnam, and Indonesia are seeking to develop their own. China is very ambitious in developing and selling drones. It has sold Wing Loong UAVs to more than four countries and now is developing a stealth drone, making China the third country capable of producing such drones, after America’s X-47 and France’s nEUROn.21

Last but not least, drones are usually fielded in geopolitically dangerous areas of the world, which may contribute to conflict escalation and more outbreak of wars. Drone warfare ”transforms the very meaning of war from an act of national sacrifice and mobilization to a distant, almost unnoticeable process of robotic strikes against a secretive ‘kill list’.”22 More dangerously, we do not know how the rise of the drone program influences decision makers’ policy alternatives in dealing with a security threat. However, the use of UAVs contributes to the false impressions that war can be fought at zero human costs and the lowest political risk. A research report by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre of the British Minister of Defense shows that the availability of drones is indeed one factor why the British decided to stand with America in its Pakistan and Yemen military operations. This report also asked national leaders to ”remove some of the horror” of drones, so that ”we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.”23

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Si Longworth
Desert hawk 3, a mini unmanned air system, is launched in Afghanistan.

In the Middle East, Iran and Israel are adversaries armed with advanced drones. Israel is more likely to use drones in strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. If that happens, Iran will certainly retaliate, probably using drones too. In East Asia, China has used drones to monitor the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, and Japan has indicated that it plans to do the same.24 Japan said it may shoot down Chinese drones, prompting a warning from Beijing that any ”shooting” means to be at war with China. Taiwan, South Korea, India and a number of ASEAN countries are seeking to buy Global Hawks from the U.S., potentially escalating tensions in the South China Sea.25 All these call for international efforts to monitor and to regulate the arbitrary use of drones before it’s too late.

As an intermediate conclusion, while drone strikes are convenient to Washington in killing terrorists, it also opens a Pandora’s box. On the tactical level, civilian deaths in the strike are ”fueling” anti-America sentiment and terrorism in Pakistan and Yemen; on the strategic level, the United States has established a precedent that other states may follow. States armed with drones will kill foreign citizens without declaring war, which may break through the existing domestic and international norms and regulations in conflict avoidance and peace building. This is why Washington needs to rethink its drone program, and find ways out of the current dilemma.

Renew the Program: Start with a Shift of Strategic Thoughts

If the drone strikes were a complete mistake, why would Obama still use and defend it even when faced with pressure? A Washington Post–ABC poll in 2012 showed that a surprising 83 percent of Americans support the use of drones against suspected terrorists abroad. In 2013, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found a decrease of this support to 66 percent, which is still very high.26 With the help of domestic support, decision makers have strengthened their beliefs that drone strikes are efficient and necessary in killing terrorists. However, all these are based on two flawed beliefs, which should be clarified before raising specific policy options.

Terrorism is Still a Major Threat to America’s Homeland Security

Security experts assume that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups were well organized, trained, and funded with potential access to massive destruction weapons. In the 2002 to 2006 period, Osama Bin Laden kept sending warnings that more destructive operations were ”under preparation.” U.S. intelligence agencies estimate the existence of between 2,000 and 5,000 trained al-Qaeda operatives in the U.S., and that bin Laden has an 11,000-strong terrorist army in more than 60 countries. The Department of Homeland Security claims that ”today’s terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon.”

However, that information is not factual. So far, there has been no major follow-up attack on American soil, and not a single American citizen has been killed on American soil by Jihad terrorists. Within the U.S., no true ”sleeper” agents have been identified.27 Terrorist groups also have very limited capacity to recruit Americans. In 2012, One of Rand Corporation’s research found that, there were a total 46 cases of ”domestic radicalization and recruitment for Jihadist terrorism” and half of them involved ”only [a] single individual.” Only two individuals out of 32 ”plots” uncovered in the US since 9/11 actually tried to build devices: one was arrested while trying to build one, and the other one’s device just failed.28 Based on case studies of all past terrorist attacks, John Mueller and Mark Stewart describe terrorist subjects as ”incompetent, inefficient, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, inadequate, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, irrational and foolish.”29

Outside America, Al-Qaeda’s capacity was also seriously weakened. Al-Qaeda’s extreme behaviors made itself its own worst enemy and a ”discredit [to] themselves.”30 In Iraq, Indonesia, Saudi Arab, Jordan, and other Arab countries, terrorists bombed civilian schools, markets, and public buses, executed ordinary people, performed forced marriages, and demanded other conservative ways of life, which created massive opposition. Those Arab countries, and even Iran, consider extremism as a threat to their regime’s security, so they started to hunt down extremist terrorists. Thus, the threat from terrorism was overestimated and the number of civilian deaths from the terrorist attacks was about the same as bathtub drownings per year in America.31 America’s efforts is actually trying to minimize the probability of terrorist attacks from very low level to extremely low.

However, even faced with an overestimated threat, America’s zero tolerance against terror, deep fear, and search for perfect security pushes the government to undertake other measures. Washington spent billions on its homeland security and in fighting two wars. Ordinary people sacrificed their privacy and other liberal rights for the Patriot Act and other such laws. But ”much of the reaction to the threat has a distinctly delusionary quality.”29 People and governments have flawed beliefs in the existence of such major threats. They then are lost in self-referential circles when failing to identify such threats. What the United States needs to do is to ”remove itself form the heart of this fight,” and take terrorism as just one ordinary threat among all others.

An Offensive Use of Force is the Best Way to Eliminate Terrorism and thus to Protect America’s Homeland Security.

Former president Bush initiated two wars and Obama relied on drones in counterterrorism. The difference between them is in tactics and means, but rarely in thoughts and strategies. Both Bush and Obama emphasize the use of force for the cult of the offensive.32 The cult of the offensive strategy believes that the United States should ”be to prevent fighters in local conflict abroad from aligning with the movement and targeting the United States and its allies.”33 Pakistan, Yemen, and other geopolitically vulnerable areas serve as a ”safe havens” to breed and shelter the terrorists. This is why it’s necessary to use drones against terrorists in those areas. However, such an offensive strategy is really not helping to realize the long-term objectives of counterterrorism.

Firstly, research shows that the use of force has never been an efficient means in eliminating terrorism. Rand Corporation researchers examined how 268 terrorist groups ended during the 1968–2006 period and found that 40 percent were ”penetrated and eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies” and 43 percent ended with a peaceful resolution and accommodation with their governments. Only 7 percent of them vanished because of military force. The report suggests that ”terrorists should be treated as criminals, not holy warriors,” so the U.S. should minimize the use of military force.34 One prominent example is the death of Osama bin Laden who was finally captured and killed by intelligence agencies and U.S. Navy SEALs.

Secondly, does an offensive strategy work in counterterrorism? Especially when the terrorism threat is being overestimated, an offensive strategy only produces misperceptions and anti-American sentiments in drone-targeted countries and even in the Muslim world. As noted above, drones kill more ”foot terrorists” or their ”nodding acquaintances” and sometimes innocent civilians. Recent polls have identified a large anti-drone and even an anti-American majority in Pakistan and Yemen. Thus, a smarter way for Washington is ”to work with local cultures and local people to build on common goals and increase their alienation from this (terrorism) movement” and put homeland security and defense efforts at the core of the strategy.33

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Debra Sweet
Protests in Washington DC against the use of drones at the inauguration of President Obama in 2013.

Lastly, many factors may contribute to the rise of anti-America terrorism, but one influential explanation is ”hatred” rooted in bin Laden and his followers’ perceptions. Stephen Walt believes that hatred is born in the long dynamics of America’s Middle East policies and wars there, particularly America’s predilection for Israel.35 In a globalized and fast-changing society, some extremists find it difficult to maintain their conservative way of life, religion, and culture. For them, the United States, who leads the change, is to blame.

The two existing false beliefs about terrorism and counterterrorism largely influence Washington’s policy choices. A new strategy thus calls for a shift of decision makers’ and the public’s thoughts. For Americans and decision makers in Washington, terrorism is just one ordinary threat which has been largely weakened after 9/11, so Americans should take it easy; this then undermines the necessity of drone strikes outside America.

Renew the Counterterrorism Tactics in Practice

President Obama gave a speech on the drone strikes at the National Defense University in May 2013 that started with a new policy. Things started to change in Pakistan with a sharp decrease of drone strikes and fewer civilian deaths. But this is far from perfect. Although terrorism is tactical, solutions to it must be strategic. Even though the use of drones does meet tactical needs to some extent, we need a more strategic perspective on whether such means really serve America strategically. The following section lists several policy suggestions not only on how to renew and justify the drone program and deal with its consequent effects, but also on the overall counterterrorism strategy.

Use Transparently

The current debate largely focuses on the number of civilian deaths, during which Washington failed to release an accurate number or to give a quick response to external skepticism. Human rights organizations’ reports, researchers’ estimations, and the crying faces of victims’ family members create the perceptions that drones are immoral. But civilian deaths may not be as serious as the media claims. A recent Pakistani government report found that only 67 civilians have died from drone strikes since 2008.36 But this report has come so late that many doubt its factuality. Both Pakistan and the United States should increase the transparency of the drone program and let the people know the truth, which is important to maintain their sustainable partnership in counterterrorism.

What’s more, transparency means accountability. Relevant agencies should be responsible for the strike that causes a relatively large number of civilian deaths and investigate and take lessons from the tragedy for better future use. Transparency also means that, once identified, those civilian deaths deserve an official apology from Washington and certain kinds of compensation. Although this is time-and resource consuming, it sends a message to local people that Washington really cares about their lives, which helps reverse the enemy image among local people and save America’s reputation.

Use Less Often and More Accurately

Targets of the drone strikes should be strictly limited to HVTs. As discussed above, an enlarged killing list does not help eliminate terrorism in a strategic perspective. It’s necessary to distinguish the HVTs from those ordinary followers. This requires more accurate weapons and intelligence. Better missiles or drones are technologically accessible, but better intelligence is more difficult, which may require field agents to collect detailed information, confirm the targets, and do post-strike evaluation, even to save injured civilians. ”Feet on ground” may increase the possibility of American militant deaths and injuries, which then calls for my next point: sustainable collaboration and cooperation with target country governments.

Use Collaboratively

People may question the necessity to cooperate with target countries because America can do it alone and collaboration also increases the possibility of intelligence leaks to terrorists, thus resulting in operation failure. Proliferation may happen if the U.S. gives or shares advanced weapons and technology with an unstable regime. But, the question is never whether America can do it, but how to do it right. And nothing is perfect; all these problems can be solved via certain arrangements.

In the drone program, Pakistan intelligence agencies can help do target selection and field investigation to increase the accuracy of a drone strike. America and Pakistan can run a joint committee to do post-strike evaluation and release necessary information to the public, especially the number of HVT and civilian deaths. They should also provide medical care for the injured civilians and necessary compensation for their losses. Collaboration also enables the Pakistani government to share the responsibility and risk with the United States. In a broader sense, collaboration also means training programs and aids to Pakistani intelligence and combatants, increasing its local policing, intelligence, and military capacity to fight terrorism on its own.

Use More Soft Power Rather than Hard Power

The rise of terrorism is partly rooted in the ”grievance” among Jihadists. This is a major reason that the use of hard force has limited, or even counterproductive, effects on counterterrorism, so Washington should use more soft power to reduce that grievance and rebuild its friendly image among local people. Among all means, official development aids (ODA) play a significant role, and Washington can give more social and development aid to Pakistan. But 69 percent of American aid to Pakistan is for the military and for security, 28 percent is for the economy, and the remaining 4 percent is for humanitarian work. One question about the current aid programs is that poor, ordinary Pakistanis in less-developed areas seldom benefit from them because of limited resources, unequal distribution, and corruption. The question of current aid is that very few ordinary people benefit from that. If terrorism emerges and rises in less-developed areas, then America’s aid should directly go to the targeted population there to improve their living conditions and socioeconomic status and reverse their perceptions on America.

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US Army Africa
The author argues that international law and shared norms should be established to regulate the use and international sale of drones.

For a new framework, ”the aid should make a real, lasting impact on the lives of the people of Pakistan with significant benefits for American national security.”37 The White House should admit the limited effects of military aid on antiterrorism and that Pakistan already has the full and preponderant military capacity to defeat terrorists by any means. The new aid framework should let more valuable resources flow to ordinary people in need who suffer from natural disasters and food shortage. To increase the efficiency of these aids, the U.S. government can cooperate with more local NGOs and international organizations. The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009 (or the Kerry–Lugar–Bergman Act) allows the U.S. government to give Pakistan $1.5 billion in nonmilitary aid per year from 2010 to 2014, which is a good starting point to renew America’s counterterrorism strategies in Pakistan. This calls for more effort to put the act into real practice and to realize its efficient use. Simply speaking, making every penny count.

Other examples of soft power also include the increase of human, cultural, and other exchange programs among social organizations. For instance, Washington can invest in the future by giving Pakistani students more opportunities and assistance for further education in America. It’s possible that these young future leaders can lead the change within Pakistan.

Use Under Domestic Regulations and International Norms

When enjoying the convenience of drones in killing terrorists, the United States should also pay much attention to its consequent impacts. International law and shared norms should be established to regulate the use and international sale of drones.

Within the United States, a more transparent and regulated use of drones in killing foreigners is very helpful to avoid arbitrary use and civilian deaths and, thus, to increase accountability. More importantly, drone warfare transforms traditional large-scale wars into smaller and less attention-getting wars. It provides the President and the Executive an excuse to enlarge their power in the use of force, which hurts the authority of U.S. Congress and the U.S. Constitution. So the U.S. Congress should see through the game, overcome the temptation of the inconvenience of drones, take it seriously, and ultimately regulate it more. The whole international community should also be fully aware of the potential risk of the production, sale, and use of drones. Civilian deaths from the use of drones should be addressed in the context of existing international human rights law. The United Nations and other leading international organizations should cooperate to increase awareness by diplomats and calling for collective action. Obviously when great power politics is involved, this will be a very tough task for all, but it’s still necessary to start it now. The United States, as the strongest power and major defender of international norms, should act and lead the change when duty calls.

The author appreciates the suggestions and comments from Prof. Kanti Bajpai, Vice Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, where the author is a PhD student, and the two reviewers of this paper.