The Economist recently offered a description and analysis of America’s increasing use of attack drones in its war on terror (‘Death from afar,’ November 3rd-9th, 2012). The article describes how the US plans to spend $1.4 billion on construction alone at an existing base located in Djibouti, known as Camp Lemonnier and run by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The base is used primarily for missions in neighbouring Somalia and Yemen.
The Economist states that since “drones can loiter over potential targets for hours before firing their missiles, they are more discriminating than either fast jets or helicopter-borne special forces” and that the “vast majority” of people who have been killed in drone attacks “appear to have been militants.” These statements are disingenuous at best.
The US government’s position is that drone attacks are a useful tool in the war on terror and that they rarely kill civilians. But there is credible evidence showing the contrary. A study done by the Brookings Institution argues that for every “insurgent” killed, there are, on average, 10 civilians killed as well. A related study by the New American Foundation found that the US government has repeatedly underreported the number of civilians killed and wounded in drone attacks. A more recent study done jointly by Stanford Law School and NYU School of Law would further support the claim that the US government, as a matter of policy, underreports the number of civilians killed and wounded in drone attacks. It states that White House estimates for civilian casualties are consistently far lower than media reports, eyewitness accounts, and the US government’s own anonymous leaks would suggest.
The Economist further reports that “drone strikes seem certain to stay the centrepiece of counter-terrorism efforts for many years to come and may well increase in reach and scale.” This then begs a simple question. Are drone attacks an effective way to reduce the enemy’s will to fight?
Figures out of Afghanistan are discouraging. The Brookings Institution, in another study, found that the number of attacks reportedly carried out by “insurgents” during the period of April to June 2012 was, in fact, 11% higher than that reported during the same period of 2011. The net result being almost 110 attacks a day during the month of June 2012. This was the highest number of attacks for that month since the beginning of the war. These statistics do not appear to be in line with an effective counterterrorism policy that is sapping the will of the enemy to fight. On the contrary, one could argue that drone strikes may be encouraging more violence on the part of the “insurgents.”
And what of the legality of all of this? The Economist tells us that “The attorney-general, Eric Holder, argued in March that the administration’s counter-terrorism efforts, including the use of 'technologically advanced weapons' were rooted in adherence to the law” and that both “the Pentagon and the CIA have deployed their general counsels to explain how their drones are always operated legally.” The Economist argues that one “indispensible” legal element is missing, “the consent of the country where the attack is to take place.” But how reassuring is all of this, from both a legal and moral standpoint?
Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter should give us reason to pause. It expressly prohibits the threat or use of force by one state against another. One argument that proponents for drone attacks use is that since the attacks are being carried out on militants and insurgents, and mostly in regions where the rule of law has broken down, the phrase “state” doesn’t apply and therefore nullifies this section of the Charter. Once more, this argument is dubious at best. If it were Iran, China, or Russia engaging in this type of behavior closer to US shores, say in Central or Latin America, there is no doubt that the US government would be in an uproar over the legality, and morality, of their use.
The war in Afghanistan is now the longest war in America’s history. Perhaps some light could be shed on current events by looking back at America’s second longest war, the war in Vietnam. Here too, conventional wisdom held that if you just “bombed them” hard enough, and with enough precision, you would weaken the enemy’s resistance and will to fight.
It was this thought process in the White House and Pentagon during the 1960s that led to the bombing campaign known as “Operation Rolling Thunder.” It was originally planned to last just twelve weeks and was designed to bring the enemy to his “senses.” It ended up lasting three years and nine months (March 1965 till November 1968), the longest strategic bombing campaign in US history.
And the effect on the enemy’s will to fight? Limited, at best. In a study funded by the Defense Department, and carried out by the Rand Corporation, it was found that the bombing campaign did not have the intended effect on enemy morale. On the contrary, the study reported that “... enemy troops, despite increasing hardships and frustrations with no rewarding victories to show in return, have failed to reveal any signs of cracking.” It went on to say that “neither our military actions nor our political or psywar efforts seem to have made an appreciable dent in the enemy's overall motivation and morale structure.” The report’s conclusion was that years of US bombing had not appreciably reduced fighting morale in the enemy. In fact, in all likelihood, it probably caused it to go up.
After 11 years of fighting, the US has now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviet Union. 2,000 US soldiers have died in combat, with over 17,000 wounded. The cost of the war is well over $1 trillion, and still counting. With a recent spate of “green on blue” attacks in which Afghan army forces have attacked NATO coalition forces, one would be hard pressed to make a case that current counterterrorism policies are weakening the fighting capabilities of the “insurgents” and local Afghan fighters.
Drones are not the solution to America’s security problems. In fact, they could very well be aggravating it.
Dr. Tom McNamara is an Assistant Professor at the ESC Rennes School of Business, France.
“2,000 Dead: Cost of War in Afghanistan” by Amy Bingham, October 1, 2012, ABC News. Accessed at:
Afghanistan: Green-on-blue attacks show there's no easy way out” by Sajjan Gohel, September 18, 2012, CNN. Accessed at:
“Afghanistan Index” by Ian S. Livingston and Michael O’Hanlon, July 31, 2012, The Brooking Institute. Accessed at: http://www.brookings.edu/~/
“Conversations with enemy soldiers in late 1968 / early 1969: A study of motivation and morale” by Konrad Kellen, September, 1970. The Rand Corporation. Accessed at:
“Death from afar” The Economist, November 3rd-9th, 2012. Accessed at:
“Do Targeted Killings Work?” by Daniel L. Byman, Senior Fellow Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, July 14, 2009, The Brookings Institute. Accessed at: http://www.brookings.edu/
"Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan" the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School) and the Global Justice Clinic (NYU School of Law), September 2012. Accessed at:
“Operation Rolling Thunder: Strategic Implications of Airpower Doctrine” by John K. Ellsworth, Colonel, USAFR, April 7, 2003, U.S. Army War College. Accessed at:
“The Charter of the United Nations” June 26, 1945. Accessed at:
‘The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2012’ The New American Foundation. Accessed at:
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