Terrorism is a tactic and drones are a tactical countermeasure. Controversies of counterterrorism strategy should not be blamed on drone technology.
Drone strikes continue to be an important part of the counterterrorism policy of the U.S. and its allies with the objective to decapitate and eliminate terrorist leaders with the intent to dismantle and defeat their networks.
Drone strikes are used to kill high-level terrorists and their affiliates while incurring relatively few civilian casualties. Today, these remotely piloted aerial vehicles, originally for surveillance purposes but now weaponized, are the most discriminate and accurate technology available to terminate precision targets.
Drones are controversial for various reasons: they unwind war's dilemma of legality and morality, incur civilian casualties, and are said to encourage more terrorists through radicalization backlash.
However, drones strikes are cost-efficient and should remain part of the counter-terrorism strategy. Drone strikes contributed to the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and killed thousands of al-Qaeda and ISIS combatants.
By all measures, terrorism has decreased in the past years in the most affected countries, e.g. Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and the use of drone strikes have played an important role. The Global Terrorism Index reported that since 2014 the total number of terrorism deaths declined by 22%. ISIS was the deadliest terrorist group of the past years, but its territorial defeat inhibits its recruitment and operational activities. Pushing back ISIS and affiliates reduces terrorist deaths. The strategy seems to work, showing that drones are serving the strategy right.
Arguing against drones, one also has to consider the alternatives. If the major concern is civilian casualties, then other possibilities to liquidate terrorists should yield better results in that regard.
Conventional airstrikes are unsuitable for ‘targeted killing’. But what about more surgical options? For instance, does sending special forces to do the dirty work spare innocent lives? Being on the receiving end of a Navy SEAL operation is no life insurance either. The Bin Laden raid killed most of those in the house that night.
The costs and risks of deploying special forces are significantly higher, whereas the gain is not always such a high-level target as Bin Laden. Furthermore, from a U.S. perspective, winding down two major Middle East wars, it is politically unrealistic to deploy boots on the ground in yet another regional quagmire—Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan—to bolster counterterrorism efforts.
Contrary to popular belief, operating drones does not alienate military personnel from the target. In fact, they spend days and weeks hovering over the suspects, observing and gathering intelligence and only engaging when evidence is sufficient.
Drone technology allows for more situational awareness, actionable intelligence, and far greater visuals than piloted aircraft. The final decision to engage is made by a committee and thus through bureaucratic and calculated deliberation.
Critics argue that the psychological trauma drones cause can make their use counterproductive. Buzzing over their head for days, drones cause serious distress in localities that terrorist elements often exploit to seek cover in. Distress bears anger and can radicalize those exposed to American interference.
Aggravating grievances perpetuates the original problem of anti-US terrorism. But as President Obama said, weighing tragedies against the alternatives concludes that allowing terrorist networks to operate and proliferate results in substantially more terrorist attacks and thus civilian deaths, especially in the target countries and against Muslim majority populations.
Treated for what they are and weighed against the alternatives, drones are an efficient, and cost-effective tool. Like any other technology, they are neutral—they can be used for any strategy. The strategy needs to be in place for drones to be effective.
Bogi Bozsogi is a Fulbright Scholar, holds a MA in International Relations from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and is a candidate for a MS in Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is a regular contributor to The Intelligence Brief and serves as editor of Georgetown's Journal of International Affairs.