Do Drones Work?

Last week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus hosted an ad hoc hearing on the implications of U.S. drone policy. It was a follow-up of sorts to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April examining the counterterrorism implications of drone strikes. The two hearings mark the first time Congress has explicitly scrutinized drones as a stand-alone issue; previous discussions were wrapped up in confirmation hearings and Rand Paul’s dramatic filibuster in March. But in narrowing the focus of the debate over drones to encompass only the moral gray areas of the Obama administration’s targeted killings policy, Congress is failing to ask more important questions.

There’s no doubt that drone strikes can have horrific consequences. Beyond the disputed numbers of noncombatants killed, there are psychological consequences to consider as well. In the Senate hearing, Farea al-Muslimi, an American-educated Yemeni writer and activist, spoke eloquently of the heartbreak and fear that drones cause in Yemen. News reports from Pakistan suggest something similar: People are deeply afraid of drones. These perspectives matter greatly. But they only scratch at the surface of a much bigger problem with how the U.S. government uses drones. At a basic level, are they effective?

Gauging the effectiveness of drones is not simply a question of body counts. It is a larger evaluation of whether the terrorist threat is affected, whether the countries where drones are used are becoming more stable or less, and whether America’s ability to partner with other governments for future counterterrorism missions is improving or getting worse. The human factor, which Congress has focused on recently, is an important part of that evaluation, but it is only one part. In other words: Can we tally up all the costs and benefits of the drone war?

In Pakistan, it’s clear that drones have dramatically affected the behavior of targeted terror groups. Hassan Abbas, a Senior Advisor at the Asia Society, noted recently that there is “near consensus” that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are “on the run” because of drone strikes. But, he cautioned, “Anti-U.S. feelings in Pakistan have increased substantially,” which is “weakening U.S.-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation.”

Other data suggest that drones can be effective at disrupting terror groups. In a working paper, Patrick B. Johnston, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, and Anoop K. Sarbahi of UCLA perform a quantitative analysis of terrorist violence and drone strikes in Pakistan. By examining the patterns of militant violence and comparing it to a database of known drone strikes, the authors came to a striking conclusion: Drones work. At least, temporarily. They found that drone strikes are strongly correlated with a short-term reduction in suicide terrorism. That does not mean, they caution, that drones caused less militant violence, just that the two seem related.

Though fascinating, Parker and Sarbahi’s paper is not conclusive. Another study from 2011 found that “failed” drone strikes, which miss their intended target and cause unintentional civilian death, dramatically increase militant violence.

Historical research on why terror groups eventually fail suggests that violence is often necessary to defeat terror groups. Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, a political scientist at Washington University, has shown that as terrorist leaders are either arrested or killed, the “quality of terror” their groups are able to carry out diminishes rapidly. As groups lose their competent leaders, they’re left with increasingly incompetent leaders who cannot be as effective.

Johnston and Sarbahi end their paper with a stark warning: “any reduction in terrorist activity associated with the drone campaign appears modest in scope.” Something else needs to be in the mix, they argue, since drones are not a “’silver bullet’ that will reverse the course of the war and singlehandedly defeat al-Qa'ida.”

Taken as a whole, drones seem to be quite good at what they’re supposed to do: disrupting terrorist groups. But that isn’t enough to actually end the threat posed by terror groups. Are the civilian and psychological costs drones incur worth it?

There is no question drones have caused dramatic, explosive anti-Americanism in the countries where they’re used. In Pakistan, the massive public outcry over the arrest of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who killed two people in Lahore, was a disaster for relations between Washington and Islamabad. His involvement in the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan elicited deep anger. Yemen, too, has seen increasing public fury at drone strikes—as witnesses like Farea al-Muslimi recounted during the Senate hearing.

But does this matter? Should the United States care that it’s disrupting the political balance of the countries in which it operates drone programs, and does rising anti-Americanism really matter in the long run?

If recent history is any guide, we can safely assume the terrorist threat will not stay in one place forever. When the United States chased the Taliban and al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan in 2002, they set up shop in Pakistan. Soon, al-Qaeda’s affiliates re-established themselves in Yemen as well, and made some inroads into Somalia before being beaten back by a multinational force. France’s recent intervention in Mali, with U.S. support, hints at a future in Africa defined by terrorism and state failure.

Knowing this, the incredible public outcry over drones should prompt concern in the U.S., where drones are uniquely popular. Playing global whack-a-mole with terrorists is hardly a comprehensive strategy for dealing with a challenge as difficult as terrorism, especially if it comes at such a steep cost.

Alternatives to drones are difficult to come by. A review last year by the Government Accountability Office showed that Yemen’s complicated politics and uncertain security situation make developing a “comprehensive strategy” difficult. Pakistan’s recent election, which saw the return of Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister and his promise of better relations with Washington, might proffer some hope. Or it might not: Ali Asif Zardari, who deposed Pervez Musharraf as President in 2008, made a similar promise when he took office. Relations quickly soured again, stalling U.S. efforts and leaving everyone angry and frustrated.

It’s not at all clear that drones are worth these social and political costs. Unfortunately, Congress has only focused on a small number of the questions drone strikes raise. While the increased scrutiny of the last few weeks is a welcome and long overdue step, it is also profoundly inadequate. The consequences drones have are not limited to the shattered lives of innocent people caught up in strikes, but also include the long term effects of disrupting entire societies this way—effects we cannot measure very well. Looking toward the future, we the public need to know where it’s heading: What will we be doing with drones 25 years from now? What’s the end state we’re working toward?

So while these two recent hearings are a good start, they have to be only a start. Drone strikes are coming to define “America” in a large part of the world. Before we continue down that path, we should make sure that’s what we really want—and, more important, that we’re ready for the consequences if we do.

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