Why Drones Fail

When Tactics Drive Strategy

Don’t drone me, bro! Pakistani tribesmen hold pieces of a missile, January 2009 (Courtesy Reuters)

The war-weary United States, for which the phrase “boots on the ground” has become politically toxic, prefers to eliminate its terrorist foes from the skies. The tool of choice: unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones. In Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen -- often far away from any battlefield where American troops are engaged -- Washington has responded to budding threats with targeted killings.

Like any other weapon, armed drones can be tactically useful. But are they helping advance the strategic goals of U.S. counterterrorism? Although terrorism is a tactic, it can succeed only on the strategic level, by leveraging a shocking event for political gain. To be effective, counterterrorism must itself respond with a coherent strategy. The problem for Washington today is that its drone program has taken on a life of its own, to the point where tactics are driving strategy rather than the other way around.

The main goals of U.S. counterterrorism are threefold: the strategic defeat of al Qaeda and groups affiliated with it, the containment of local conflicts so that they do not breed new enemies, and the preservation of the security of the American people. Drones do not serve all these goals. Although they can protect the American people from attacks in the short term, they are not helping to defeat al Qaeda, and they may be creating sworn enemies out of a sea of local insurgents. It would be a mistake to embrace killer drones as the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism.


At least since 9/11, the United States has sought the end of al Qaeda -- not just to set it back tactically, as drones have surely done, but also to defeat the group completely. Terrorist organizations can meet their demise in a variety of ways, and the killing of their leaders is certainly one of them. Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist separatist group in the Philippines, lost its political focus, split into factions, and became a petty criminal organization after the army killed its leaders in 2006 and 2007. In other cases, however, including those of the Shining Path in Peru and Action Directe in France, the humiliating arrest of a leader has been more effective. By capturing a terrorist leader, countries can avoid creating a martyr, win access to a storehouse of intelligence, and discredit a popular cause.

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