Why the U.S. Drone Strike Campaign Is Self-Defeating

A more selective drone strike campaign could achieve similar operational results and deflate jihadi propaganda efforts.

By Collin Hunt
Staff Writer
December 16, 2014

Amid Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent resignation and mounting public scrutiny of President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy, the United States should take the opportunity to revamp its strategy to combat extremism. Hagel has voiced strong support for the U.S. targeting killing program as a cornerstone of the war on terror, yet recent Global Terrorism Index data detailing a sharp rise in global terrorist attacks indicates that it is a war the United States is losing. As a result, the United States should shift its global counterterrorism efforts to reflect a more restrained global counterinsurgency, scrapping the targeted killing program in all but the most necessary cases.

Since 2001, the United States has proven far more adept at creating terrorists than killing them. While the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan can account for a spike in local radicalization, inaccurate drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen1, and in support of an unpopular AMISOM mission in Somalia have simplified militant calls for recruits to join the global jihad. On any given day, Twitter is filled with anti-American exhortations that cite the drone program as a key justification for joining the jihad.

Counter-insurgency doctrine, which emphasizes population-centric security2 and stresses the enemy’s advantage in shaping the information environment3, notes that this blowback should not come as a surprise. However, an administration that just this year pledged to win Arab “hearts and minds” has remained willfully ignorant of these consequences and doubled down on the targeted killing program. Such a decision might be understandable if strikes created measurable operational gains for U.S. forces to exploit, but the attacks display little effect in curbing insurgent violence. In fact, a recent study in Terrorism and Political Violence examining the effect of drone strikes on core Al Qaeda’s resilience found that the group’s operating ability remained largely untouched and that propaganda production increased with the number of strikes.

Though collateral damage in drone strikes appears to have abated in recent years, it is unclear whether such improvements stem from technological advances in weaponry or more favorable internal accounting methods and media coverage. Recently analyzed records from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s compilation of open-source information indicate that efforts to target 41 senior Al Qaeda commanders yielded 1,147 casualties. This is not the hallmark of a targeted killing campaign aimed at decapitating enemy leadership: it is shooting from the hip and hoping to hit the bull's-eye. For the most part, the drone program has failed to put rounds on target: fewer than 4% of currently identified drone victims in Pakistan possess Al Qaeda affiliation and only 10% can be identified as militants, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s review. Though the true figures are likely higher, continued classification of targeting data thwarts useful public discourse on both the morality and the effectiveness of the targeted killing campaign.

The discrepancies observed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism are the natural results of inadequate targeting intelligence. Signature strikes assuming ‘military-age males’ in a target area are ‘probably up to no good’ resulted in inevitable errors in judgment that led to a dramatic curtailment of the program’s overreach. For example, the now-infamous wedding drone strike, which eradicated a Yemeni wedding procession in violation of the Obama administration’s own requirements of ‘near-certain’ civilian safety, has been exploited for propaganda gain by both AQAP and ISIS. Civilian casualties occur in large number as a result of the drone program and should give moral pause to those authorizing its continuation.
Even if collateral damage is unavoidable, the United States’ poor cultural awareness during efforts to compensate victims’ families is an easily exploitable weakness that enables jihadi propaganda efforts. Administration officials are correct in their assertions that international law allows for lethal force to be applied to identifiable enemy combatants, but using the ‘good enough’ standard to authorize launching a Hellfire missile constitutes a flagrant violation of international norms regarding acceptable rules of engagement. Further, these “low-percentage” strikes provide insurgents an opportunity to accomplish a goal contrary to every tenet of the Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual: channeling anti-Western sentiment into identity, purpose, and community.4 The United States has committed itself to a self-perpetuating war through a series of strategic miscalculations stemming from a failure to recognize that terrorism, by definition a political action, is best combated with the population-focused development and security initiatives of counterinsurgency.

Though the United States has employed COIN on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan with varying degrees of success, Washington has yet to apply COIN’s lessons beyond the theater level. While COIN is too manpower-intensive and requires too much interagency collaboration for the U.S. to apply it directly on a global level, the United States can profitably apply core COIN tenets in partnership with local allies. A permanent corps of COIN advisors should be established to work with local security forces and protect populations from insurgents while also ensuring human rights are respected. State Department and USAID initiatives should also work toward alleviating specific economic and social ills contributing to insurgent causes.

This will require a sea change in American strategic thinking and would precipitate a more cautious approach towards the country’s vaunted drone strike campaign. Armed drones should be restricted to support of U.S. troops engaged in combat operations or to employment in high-confidence strikes on senior terrorist leaders with minimal chance of collateral damage. If such changes to the program cannot be made, the United States will only decrease its chances of winning the war on terror with each successive strike.


1. Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (New York: Nation Books, 2013), 311.

2. David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerilla (Oxford: Oxford Press, 2009), 266.

3. The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual FM 3-24 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2007), 5.

4. The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual FM 3-24 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2007), 25.


Collin Hunt is a first-year student in the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Security Policy Studies program with concentrations in transnational security and strategic communications. His current research focuses on jihadist groups and weapons smuggling in North Africa. Collin completed his undergraduate degree at Texas A&M University, studying politics and diplomacy of the Middle East. He can be reached via Twitter at @hunt_collin and email at collinhunt@gwu.edu.

Photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson. Image Cropped.

About Us

The International Affairs Review is a graduate student-run publication of The George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Follow us on:

Submission Guidelines

The International Affairs Review is currently accepting article submissions. Submissions for the website are accepted on a weekly basis with a deadline of 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time each Thursday. Submissions for the print journal are accepted continuously, with article selection occurring at the beginning of each semester.

Click here for more information

Disclaimer

Opinions expressed in International Affairs Review are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Affairs Review, The Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University, or any other person or organization formally associated with International Affairs Review.

Click here for more information

Contact Us

Please feel free to contact our team with any questions or concerns.

Email: iarweb@gwu.edu

The Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University
1957 E Street, NW
Room 303-K
Washington, DC 20052