For those who follow current events and international politics, one particular headline and its variations have dominated the news and grasped our attention. It reads something along the lines of online news articles such as “Taliban leader killed in U.S. drone strike”.
The U.S. has been carrying out drone strikes in regions occupied by al-Qaeda and their associates with the intent of disrupting their leadership and operational capacity. These strikes have been carried out since the early 2000s in Yemen, Somalia and most notably, in regions of western Pakistan near the Afghan border.
The media has decried such strikes as immoral and illegal and claimed that such strikes increase popular support for al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their associates.
But behind this sentiment is a complex and multifaceted moral, legal and pragmatic calculus. As such, it is foolish to immediately denounce such actions without an understanding of both the greater context and realities of such strikes.
While it is regrettable that the U.S.—a supposed democracy infused with the values of human rights—has resorted to these methods, we must not write off the pragmatic value of drone strikes as a means of ensuring our domestic safety and the safety of our troops overseas.
From a purely objective standpoint, drone strikes, as well as other forms of targeted killing, have proven effective in hindering the operational capacity of armed non-state actors. According to Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst and an authority on combating terrorism, “CIA drone attacks in Pakistan have undoubtedly hindered some of the Taliban’s operations, killed hundreds of their low-level fighters and a number of their top commanders.” In addition, the “terrorizing presence” of drones overhead has proven to be psychologically effective, disrupting militant organizations ability to gather and coordinate.
Evidence gathered from Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound corroborates the effectiveness of drone strikes. Bin Laden himself expressed concern regarding such strikes, urging his top operational planner, Atiyya Abdul Rahman to convey modified concealment strategies to al-Qaeda operatives. Rahman himself was killed last August by a drone strike in Pakistan.
Additionally, evidence gathered both from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Israeli strikes against Hamas have demonstrated that as the rate of retaliatory terrorist attacks increases, their lethality decreases precipitously. According to Daniel Byman, a professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University and authority on Middle East Policy, “Something more than correlation was at work here. Contrary to popular myth, the number of skilled terrorists is quite limited…they need many months, if not years, to gain enough expertise to be effective. When these individuals are arrested or killed, their organizations are disrupted. The groups may still be able to attract recruits, but lacking expertise, these new recruits will not pose the same kind of threat.”
Furthermore, due to the relatively decentralized nature of current militant groups, eliminating a single prominent leader, such as Osama bin Laden, is of limited strategic value. While such events are major victories in regards to morale, the organizational structure of terrorist groups allows them to operate without a central leader, and thus still pose a serious threat. As such, eliminating the leaders of regional and local cells through targeted killings is clearly a more effective means of disrupting al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Drone strikes, regardless of their dubious moral nature and potential for collateral damage, are an effective means of disrupting the tactical capacity of al-Qaeda and other hostile groups. While the subjective ethical aspects of this debate are open to interpretation, an objective analysis of drones clear indicate the strike’s pragmatic effectiveness.