It is the cornerstone of US counterterrorism policy. Still, the executive branch in the American administration does not know if the benefits of targeting suspected militants by drones in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen exceed the costs it imposes.
Killing suspected militants using drones (unmanned aerial vehicles or UAV) has been the preferred counterterrorism strategy for the current and former US administrations.
The drone strikes have reportedly killed several hundred suspected militants, including US nationals. At the same time, the drone strikes are known to have unintentionally killed hundreds of civilians, including a large number of children.
A recent report from a Washington-based think tank, Stimson Center, questions the effectiveness, not necessarily the legality, of drone strikes.
The report observed that “the cross-border use of lethal force against targeted individuals in an unprecedented and expanding way” raised “significant strategic, legal and ethical questions.”
More shocking, however, was the revelation that the US government’s executive branch is yet to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of killing suspected militants and civilians using drones.
The report has been produced by a 10-member task force comprising distinguished academics, legal experts, and former military commanders and senior government administrators. Retired General John Abizaid, who headed the US Central Command, and Professor Rosa Brooks, former Counselor to the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, jointly chaired the task force.
It is no secret that the US drone strikes in Pakistan have fueled militancy and helped legitimise violent acts by the Taliban and other al Qaeda affiliates.
The militants routinely cite drone strikes as the reason for their armed struggle. But it’s not just the militants who oppose drone strikes; they are loathed even by those who despise the extremists.
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The last general elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were contested on drones where the incumbents, who supported drone strikes, were booted out of the office by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf, which opposes drone strikes.
The view that drone strikes have been counterproductive is not held just by libertarians. In fact, seasoned military commanders, such as General (retired) Stanley McChrystal, who commanded the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, hold similar views.
“The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes ... is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one,’ the report quotes the General.
The Obama administration, however, did not appear to be listening to its own experts and field commanders. General McChrystal in fact resigned in June 2010 after the publication of an interview with the Rolling Stone magazine in which the General’s aides reportedly made comments critical of President’s Obama defence team.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been documenting the American drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Since 2004, the Bureau has recorded 386 drone strikes in Pakistan of which 335 strikes were conducted under the Obama administration. Since the drone strikes are being conducted by the CIA, and not the US military, each strike is cleared by the President’s office and not Pentagon.
The strikes have reportedly killed between 2,310 and 3,743 individuals. The Bureau estimates that the civilian death toll ranges between 416 and 957. Almost 200 children are suspected to have died in drone strikes in Pakistan alone. Thousands more have been injured.
Surely, if drone strikes were so vital to the American counterterrorism strategy, some serious ex-post evaluation of the policy must have taken place. Analysts must have looked into the short- and long-term costs of conducting cross-border raids and murders of suspected militants.
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The costs considered would not just be monetary, i.e., comparing costs for sorties run by drones against those run by piloted fighter jets. Surely they would have considered other benefits than the drone operators returning home safely for dinner. And they must have thought of the long-term consequences of fuelling militancy as hundreds of civilians, including children, have died in drone strikes.
With thousands of individuals being killed, not all of them militants, and whose ability to harm the US is not ascertained with certainty, the drone strikes are perhaps the biggest, but not the only, determinant of sustained militancy in Pakistan. The efficacy of drone strikes has to be seen in the context of their contribution in spreading and sustaining armed conflicts by militants across targeted countries.
These blowbacks impose serious costs that need to be accounted for in the ‘cost benefit analyses’ of the drone strikes, if one were to overlook the moral imperatives.
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General Abizaid’s report reveals that not to be the case. “To the best of our knowledge, however, the US executive branch has yet to engage in a serious cost-benefit analysis of targeted UAV strikes as a routine counterterrorism tool,” the report noted.
The drone strikes indeed have eliminated some known militants. However, even more vicious and heartless militants have replaced those killed in the drone strikes. At the same time, drone strikes have spread hatred against the US beyond the militants because, according to General McChrystal, drone strikes create a perception of American arrogance that says,
Well we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.