The Drone Delusion


"[Drone] Air strikes have been the single most effective tool at protecting the American people from core al-Qaeda and other organizations."

Michael E. Leiter, former Director, National Counterterrorism Center, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, The National Conversation--9/11: The Next Ten Years, The Woodrow Wilson Center, September 12, 2011

Drones are emblematic of America's reliance on advanced technology in warfare and have become the principal instrument in the nation's fight against terrorists. While unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology is a few decades old, they have become indispensable to American military operations. The manpower-intensive nature of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased the requirement for the unique intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities provided by drones by several orders of magnitude in just under a decade. Moreover, armed drone strikes have become central to American counter-terrorist operations in Afghanistan-Pakistan. In the parlance of national security practitioners, drones constitute an "asymmetric" advantage for the United States -- a unique means of warfare available primarily to one side in a conflict. Indeed, the success achieved by drone strikes, in tandem with the American surge in Afghanistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden in July 2011, have convinced national decision-makers that Al Qaeda is within "strategic defeat." The conviction would be welcome if it was indeed based on more than the impressive technological of remotely piloted vehicles. As many practitioners will caveat, the enemy has a vote, and in the face of overwhelming American military strength, it will readily employ its own asymmetric advantages. When American drones are contrasted with enemy stratagems, the alleged advantage evaporates. Ascribing strategic advantage to drones exaggerates their effectiveness and obscures needed changes in the way the United States approaches contemporary security challenges.

Asymmetry vs. Asymmetry

In response to American advanced military technology, the enemy introduced two decidedly low-tech measures -- suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices.

Suicide attacks have been a critical tactic in insurgents' and terrorists' playbooks since the 1980s. Once the innovation of Tamil rebels on Sri Lanka, the tactic spread to the Middle East as terrorist groups began to conduct suicide bombings in their bid to eject Israel from Lebanon and Palestinian territories. The Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, marked the most deadly suicide attack in history, resulting in almost 3,000 deaths. Following the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the number of suicide attacks grew enormously in both countries. According to the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST), the number of suicide attacks from 1981 to 2009 around the globe totaled 1,941, from which over 25,000 died and almost 66,000 were wounded; attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2002 to 2009 accounted for 1,279 of those attacks, or 66 percent, and just under 14,000 dead, or just more than 50 percent.

Improvised explosive devices are simply just that - munitions cobbled together from available materials. IEDs are usually deployed inconspicuously and detonated by wires, pressure, or remote control. The explosion can be a standalone attack, a diversionary tactic, or part of a coordinated ambush. The device could also be delivered by car or truck. According to iCasualties.org, an independent website that tracks casualties in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the number of IED-related fatalities totaled 395 in 2011, 51 percent of all fatalities.

Official data on U.S. drone strikes globally are classified. As such, the New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank, has completed an ongoing analysis of drone strikes in Pakistan for the period 2004-2011. According to New America Foundation research, 270 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, including 57 in 2011, from 2004 to the present have killed approximately between 1,661 and 2,601 individuals, of whom around 1,368 to 2,130 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. (For additional information on the New America Foundation "Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2011", proceed to http://counterterrorism.newamerica.net/drones.)

The linked chart depicting the number of fatalities year in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater resulting from the enemy's use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), enemy suicide attacks, and U.S. drone strikes for the period 2004-2011.1
As the chart indicates, the enemy's use of IEDs and suicide attacks (against the U.S. and allies) in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater have wreaked far more damage in terms of fatalities than U.S. drone strikes -- 8,030 vs. 2,031 even without suicide attack data for 2010 and 2011.

While relying on body counts as a metric was discredited during the Vietnam War, the contrast underscores the impact of the chosen tactic. U.S. drone strikes have indeed increased in use over the years and high-ranking terrorist leaders have been eliminated, but their use has lagged far behind the enemy's use of suicide attacks, which the enemy employed earlier, more lethally, and, in strategic terms, to greater effect.

"Like the British and the Russians before them…"

After all, President Barack Obama announced in June 2011 that American forces would be exiting Afghanistan in September 2012, closing out the surge he commenced in December 2009. According to the plan presented then, the overarching goal would be "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future." To achieve this objective -- over the next eighteen months -- President Obama outlined three steps. The first two steps toward achieving this objective entailed "break[ing] the Taliban's momentum" and "pursu[ing] a more effective civilian strategy."

According to September 2, 2011 reporting by David Ignatius of the Washington Post, a July 2011 Central Intelligence Agency report entitled "District Assessment on Afghanistan" asserted the war was heading toward a stalemate. "Even in areas where the United States has surged troops over the past 18 months to clear insurgents, the CIA analysts weren’t optimistic that the Taliban’s momentum had been reversed, as President Obama and his military commanders have argued." On September 20, 2011, the Taliban capped a series of audacious attacks with the suicide attack assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was leading peace and reconciliation negotiations.

The final third step involved "act[ing] with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan." Since that time, American special forces had to conduct a unilateral covert raid inside Pakistan to eliminate Osama bin Laden, who had been hiding in a massive compound in the same town as the country's premiere military academy. On September 22, 2011, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified before Congress asserting linkages between the Pakistani military and intelligence services and the Afghan Haqqani terrorist network, which had just attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

No matter how well the Obama Administration portrays its stewardship of the war from 2009 to 2012, it will very hard pressed to deny the withdrawal from Afghanistan as a major setback for the United States in the region.

Daniel R. Green, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow and veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, asserted the Taliban and their supporters will present it as a victory and speculated how the enemy would craft its narrative for the all-important ongoing battle of narratives.

In the words of a Taliban propagandist: "The mujahedeen have beaten the Americans! Like the British and the Russians before them, the Americans have tired of their war to oppress Islam in Afghanistan and are leaving."

In the analysis of a Pakistani intelligence officer: “As we have always known, the Americans are leaving Afghanistan and, as expected, the task of cleaning it up has fallen to us. … The U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden taught us many things about U.S. capabilities and intentions. They do not respect our sovereignty and are willing to strike targets within our borders without our cooperation. … As the Americans draw down in Afghanistan, we will partner with our Taliban allies to extend their reach into areas the Afghans and the Americans do not control to extend our influence."

In the mind of a senior al-Qaeda leader: "Our strategy of attrition against the Americans is working as they begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Their bankruptcy and weak economy are forcing them to retreat from the world, and al-Qaida will take advantage of these new opportunities. … Our affiliates in Somalia and Yemen have grown in significance and our presence in Iraq continues even though our core group has been weakened with the death of Osama bin Laden. Our cause endures."

Michael Scheuer, the former chief of and adviser to the intelligence community's bin Laden unit, recently concluded bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, "faces a situation more promising than any al-Qaeda has encountered since its founding. [emphasis added]" Contemporary Al Qaeda is "multiethnic, multilingual, organizationally sound and resilient, religiously tolerant and militarily effective... larger, younger, better educated, much more geographically dispersed and has many more adherents than the one [al-Zawahiri] joined in 1998."

And how do drones fit into this narrative? According to Dr. Peter Singer, author of Wired for War, the use of drones results in a disconnect between the message sent in the war of ideas versus the message received -- "…what about the message that is received? I asked the leading newspaper editor of Lebanon, and there was actually a drone flying above him at the time. This is his quote: 'It’s just another sign of the cold-hearted, cruel Israelis and Americans who are also cowards, because they send out machines to fight us. They don’t want to fight us like real men; they’re afraid to fight, so we just have to kill a few of their soldiers to defeat them. [emphasis added].'"

Asymmetrically Vulnerable

Drones maybe attractive as low cost alternatives to pricey procurement programs and satisfy a recurrent search for technological silver bullets to security challenges, but it cannot compensate for what Scheuer ironically notes is Al Qaeda's "[most] reliable ally -- Washington's interventionist foreign policy." Because with intervention comes costs and IEDs and suicide attacks will remain key components of enemy cost-imposition strategies.

IEDs are possible because the raw materials are abundant and cheap. Moreover, IED production will undergo continuous innovation for these reasons and the ability to "open source" the research and development across global networks. The United States has committed approximately $13 billion between FY2007 and FY2010 to fund its Joint IED Defeat Organization within the Department of Defense. In 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had to intervene personally to ensure the department procured more than 16,000 mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles at a cost of approximately $22.7 billion. The costs to care for servicemembers with injuries related to IEDs are substantial and will be borne into the future.

Suicide attacks shock the target population with their suddenness, lethality, and manifest desperation.  More critically, suicide attacks possess the advantage of being undeterrable acts -- and not because they’re the acts of religious zealots.  According to Robert Pape, the academic who led the compilation of CPOST data, the phenomenon of suicide attacks result not from religious fanaticism, but opposition to foreign occupation forces, particularly those from a country with a distinctly different religious background.  

These tactics preceded the American commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Their demonstrated efficacy ensures that if America is intent on supporting the [insert name] regime in [insert country] with forces, then the enemy will be sure to make the decision a costly one.  

The use of drones will be irrelevant.

After Afghanistan, Beyond Asymmetries

Unfortunately, American national security planning defaults are apparently set to intervene and deploy.

America withdrew from Saudi bases -- bin Laden's pretext for the September 11th terrorist attacks -- in 2003, and America will withdraw from Afghanistan in 2012, but it has apparently decided to sustain its presence in the region, via drones. According to September 20, 2011 Washington Post reporting, the Obama administration is establishing covert bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Seychelles to host drones for counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda organizations in the western Indian Ocean region.

As such, American warfighters (and citizens) will have to continuing coping with the enemies’ reliance on improvised weapons, suicide attacks, and whatever means they can conceive or discover.  

The search for an asymmetric advantage is not new in warfare, but the enemy has been concocting weapons out of disparate materials and donning suicide vests in defense of their identity and integrity.  Deposing the Taliban and Baathist regimes was justified.  Direct action against bin Laden and the drone strike against al-Alwaki were justified.  

But American enthusiasm for drone technologies is a defective defense and potentially malignant. Drone technologies will have a place in American military capabilities, but as an integrated component, not the tip of its spear.  Strikes remotely directed from a distance measured in thousands of miles (or worse, autonomously executed by the vehicle itself, a morally reprehensible possibility) is a slippery slope into fully militarizing foreign policy and exacerbating the lawlessness emergent in the global arena.


War is, as it has always been, a clash of wills.  Going forward, the words of America’s finest contemporary strategist, Air Force COL John Boyd, should be heeded “Machines don’t fight wars. … Humans fight wars. You must get into the minds of humans. That’s where the battles are won.”


1 The data has been compiled from the aforementioned sources: iCasualties.org (search parameters set to IED fatalities in Afghanistan); CPOST (search parameters set to Afghanistan for all years searchable, 2004-2009), and New America Foundation (in the instance of variable figures (”Militants killed: 3-4”), the highest number was selected). For the supporting data set, please see Google Docs URL.)