Horse cavalry gave way mechanized warfare, and tank armies are giving way to drone warfare. Drones flourish where national sovereignty is weak and international borders are extremely permeable. Since it’s not a good idea for Washington to set precedents it does not want others to follow, greater care relating to US drone strikes is warranted. Two studies on this subject were released last week. Their recommendations clarify the value of trying to devise international standards on the use of drone warfare and the difficulty of doing so.

The two reports have many common threads and policy recommendations. The report written by Micah Zenko and Susan Kreps of the Council on Foreign Relations states the dilemmas of being a precedent-setter plainly:

The actions of the United States would serve as a benchmark against which others are judged, and therefore provide legitimacy for and reduce the political and diplomatic costs of other countries emulating U.S. practices.

My colleague at the Stimson Center, Rachel Stohl, convened a task force of heavy hitters from the U.S. intelligence community and the Departments of Defense, State, and Commerce to issue a report on drone warfare. The Task Force was co-chaired by former CENTCOM Commander General John P. Abizaid and former Counselor to the Undersecretary of Defense Rosa Brooks. The recommendations of Stimson’s report include:

  • Conducting a rigorous strategic review and cost-benefit analysis of the role of lethal drones in targeted counterterrorism strikes.
  • Improving transparency through the release of a detailed report from the administration explaining the legal basis for US conduct of targeted killings; the approximate number, location and organizational affiliations of those killed by drone strikes; the identities of civilians killed as well as the number of strikes carried out by the military versus the CIA.
  • Transferring general responsibility for carrying out lethal drone strikes from the Central Intelligence Agency to the military.
  • Developing robust oversight and accountability mechanisms, including an independent commission to review drone policy and past strikes.
  • Fostering the development of appropriate international norms for the use of lethal force outside traditional battlefields.
  • Assessing drone-related technological developments and likely future trends and creating an interagency research and development strategy.
  • Reviewing and reforming drone-related export control rules and Federal Aviation Administration rules.


The report issued by the Council on Foreign Relations calls on the Obama administration to “pursue a strategy that places clear limits on its own sale and use of armed drones lest these weapons proliferate and their use becomes widespread,” and to actively promote these guidelines abroad. The CFR report’s recommendations include:

  • Tasking the intelligence community to publish an unclassified survey of the current and future trends of unmanned military technologies—including ground, sea, and autonomous systems—as they do for ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
  • Commissioning an unclassified study by a federally funded research institution to assess how unmanned aerial systems have been employed in destabilizing settings and identify the most likely potential future missions of drones that run counter to U.S. interests.
  • Directing administration officials to testify—for the first time—before Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees hearings on the principles and criteria that should guide armed and unarmed drone exports.
  • Appointing a high-level panel of outside experts to review U.S. government policies on targeting decisions and their transparency and potential effect on emerging proliferators, and propose reforms based on the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies.


It’s easy to fulminate about drone strikes, and hard to stop them when U.S. policy makers don’t have diplomatic and economic leverage and when other military options appear even worse. The fundamental policy question — whether drone strikes do more good than harm – has been answered affirmatively by Presidents as dissimilar as George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Their cost/benefit calculus is cloudy, since those targeted in the field are replaceable and since the efficacy of targeted killing in disrupting plots can’t be quantified. Washington can, however, count dead bodies and can measure the length of time between attacks by terrorists on the U.S. homeland. Also quantifiable, as much as possible through the limits of public opinion polling in weak states wracked by domestic violence, is a direct correlation between U.S. drone strikes and U.S. unpopularity.

I follow this issue mostly through the lens of Pakistan, where a standard defense mechanism is to blame outsiders – now led by the United States – for the ills affecting the state. The Obama administration suspended drone strikes while Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sought to forge a domestic consensus on military action by first talking to representatives of the Pakistani Taliban. This pause had the practical effect of nullifying the domestic argument that Washington was to blame for explosions regularly carried out by one or another group affiliated with the TTP.

Drone strikes have resumed after attacks on Karachi’s international airport, alongside the long-delayed, intensified military activity by Pakistan’s armed forces in North Waziristan. The first strike after this hiatus, on June 11, was reportedly against Uzbek fighters linked in unspecified ways to the airport attacks. It elicited the standard public demarche by Foreign Ministry spokespersons about the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Any goodwill with the Pakistani military for targeting Uzbek fighters may have been negated the very next day by a drone strike reportedly against members of the Haqqani network, which has notably been unaffected by this military campaign.

More drone strikes are in store as more countries acquire armed drones. Pakistan seeks this capability and China, worried about violent Uyghur extremists that use Pakistan for training purposes, may well oblige. The current military offensive, like previous ones, was preceded with long forewarning, allowing noncombatants and militants alike to get out of harm’s way. Rawalpindi will now have to deal with safe havens for extremists across the Durand Line, a problem with which the Pentagon is quite familiar. Looking not too far into the future, both states might conduct drone strikes on Afghan territory.

The coordination of drone strikes between the United States and Pakistan would be one way to address common concerns. If cooperation is publicly acknowledged and framed by Islamabad as a way to regain the writ of the state, bilateral relations could improve markedly. One of Nawaz’s interlocutors with the TTP, Rustam Shah Mohmand, forthrightly told Dawn, a Pakistani daily, that “Drones are more precise in targeting militants than the jets the [Pakistan] air force is using, which cause heavy collateral damage. The government should have formed a strategy in collaboration with the US to carry out strikes using drones.”

This stunning suggestion seems unlikely to be acted upon. It would take a great deal of a political courage on Nawaz Sharif’s part and, besides, U.S. and Pakistani target lists diverge. Still, there is enough of an overlap of national interests to cooperate tacitly, at least some of the time.