Courtesy Reuters

The Real Drone Debate

By Anish Goel

In their respective articles “Why Drones Work” and “Why Drones Fail” (July/August 2013), Daniel Byman and Audrey Kurth Cronin make arguments that are not mutually exclusive. Byman emphasizes that U.S. drone strikes have decimated al Qaeda’s senior leadership; Cronin, that they have galvanized extremist recruiting and soured foreign public opinion of the United States. Both points are undoubtedly true, and to argue otherwise in either case would be to deny the basic realities of U.S. drone warfare. Both authors neglect to mention, however, that the use of drone strikes needs to be tempered by the domestic political realities in the countries where they are carried out. Only then can drone warfare achieve the benefits outlined by Byman while minimizing the drawbacks explained by Cronin.

The recent history of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan provides a good example of this concept. The relative scarcity of drone strikes in 2007–8 was commensurate with the Pakistani government’s ability to handle the political fallout. The infrequent strikes kept public discontent to a simmer and allowed the host government to avoid publicly denouncing them. These strikes stand in contrast to those in 2009–12, when the sheer number of strikes blew the cover off the program, inflamed public sentiments, and forced the Pakistani government to halt its support.

Drone strikes should be just one tool in a larger counterterrorism framework, used only in accordance with a host government’s political legitimacy. Like all things, drone strikes work best in moderation. Their use need not be governed by the false all-or-nothing proposition outlined by Byman and Cronin.

ANISH GOEL is a former Senior Director for South Asia, U.S. National Security Council, 2009–11

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