Drones provide essential surveillance, thereby helping to protect US forces and national security interests. Drone strikes are meant to serve the same purposes, but they have become a recruiting tool for militancy. Are drone strikes necessary, and if so, under what criteria? Do the current pattern and number of drone strikes advance or harm US national security interests?
These questions apply mostly to Pakistan, where over 300 drone strikes have taken place during the Obama administration. There are several possible explanations for strikes in the lawless hinterlands of Pakistan. The most persuasive one is that they help save the lives of US and NATO soldiers operating in Afghanistan. Other possible explanations are that drone strikes shore up a weak Afghan government, help leverage a political settlement — assuming one can be negotiated – and eliminate Taliban fighters that the administration deems to be associated with al-Qaeda – fighters that are not challenged by the Pakistani military. Drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt have grown because these objectives are entwined, and because other military means are not available.
A disentanglement of the objectives behind drone strikes could help clarify their utility. If the primary reason for drone strikes is force protection, we can expect far fewer of them once American and allied servicemen and women leave Afghanistan. If, alternatively, drone strikes have become a means to compensate for reduced US force levels, the limitations of the Afghan government and its military forces, as well as Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to sever ties with anti-US militias, drone strikes can continue to be regular occurrences after 2014 — and might extend into Afghanistan.
A durable, legal, policy framework to guide US counterterrorism efforts, which President Obama seeks, requires a prioritization of targets and objectives. Does the administration believe that drone strikes can affect outcomes in Afghanistan? How does the administration define the “associates” of al-Qaeda in “leadership” positions that pose “imminent” threats requiring drone strikes in Pakistan? Most leaders of extremist groups with global reach are more likely to find safe havens in Pakistan’s cities than in its tribal belt. As a consequence, drone strikes limited to Pakistan’s hinterlands usually aim at the body, but not the head, of militant groups.
US national security interests in Pakistan far surpass those in Afghanistan. And yet, US policy on drone strikes has weakened ties to Pakistan without having an appreciable, positive impact on the outcome of the war in Afghanistan. If drone strikes are primarily required to protect US forces as they withdraw from Afghanistan, associated penalties will be temporary in nature. Alternatively, if the administration’s definitions of “associates,” “leadership,” and “imminent” are elastic, the costs of drone strikes can continue at a high level and can expand in geographical scope.
Despite the Pakistan military’s ambiguous role in counter-terrorism efforts, it receives significant coalition support funding from the Congress. These funds provide compensation for logistical support more than anything else. Coalition support funding has not stopped the planning and execution of attacks on US and NATO from safe havens on Pakistani soil.
If the efficacy of a military tactic does not outweigh the costs of employing it, reconsideration is warranted. The steep draw-down of US forces from Afghanistan provides an opportunity for a review of both drone strikes within and coalition support funding to Pakistan. The latter can be sized to actual counter-terrorism operations; the former can be pared down greatly.