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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Can we count the cost of drone warfare?

An MQM-74C aerial target drone launches from the deck of the dock landing ship USS Tortuga for a scheduled missile exercise. Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Cmdr. James Ridgeway/Released

Drones are a hot topic in U.S. defense circles these days. The Obama administration has increased their use in lethal strikes against suspected terrorists several fold since taking office in 2009. Analysts have taken to crediting drones, and not the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as the cause of  al Qaeda in Pakistan’s demise.

We don’t really know what effects drones have. Press reports are notoriously unreliable indicators of the actual number of casualties from drone strikes and it’s difficult to say exactly who is killed in these strikes. Most fatalities are never positively identified.

In Pakistan, explains C. Christine Fair, assistant professor at Georgetown, reliable data about victims just doesn’t exist, “There is a problem of circular reportage,” she said at a panel convened at my think tank, the American Security Project. News sources reporting on drone victims ultimately end up citing the Pakistani or U.S. governments, neither of which is necessarily credible in discussing the drone campaign.

Complicating matters, Dr. Fair noted, is that it’s not always certain that explosions and casualties result from  a drone strike. “Drones [in Pakistan] are collocated with terrorist incidents,” she said. “It means that some of those children injured and killed may have been the victims of terrorist attacks or even Pakistani military attacks.”  Additionally, she said,  the lack of forensic experts makes assigning blame for the violence in Northwest Pakistan extremely difficult, if not impossible.

According to Dr. Fair, the biggest challenge in counting the costs from drone strikes is Pakistan itself. “If the Pakistani government were sincere in its howling about drones… they would have UNAMA set up a CIVCAS unit nearby,” referring to the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan’s Civilian Casualties investigative program. She also suggested that fact-finding would improve if the Pakistani government began allowing journalists to visit the drone-affected regions.

Drones have also been used to conduct strikes in Yemen and Somalia where it is equally difficult to determine exact outcomes.  In Yemen, it is incredibly difficult to get to the site of the strike – and even then, foreign researchers have a difficult time determining when to trust interview subjects. This is why one researcher may maintain drones are popular while another notes that they breed widespread anger and recruit for terrorist groups.

If we can’t determine collateral damage from drones, can we tell how they’re affecting the terror groups they target? Speaking at the aforementioned panel, Aaron Zelin, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said drones have substantially affected the ability of terror groups to train.

In order to avoid surveillance, terrorist groups have developed “mobile training camps” in Yemen. ‘Mobile’ because terror organizations will now drive out into a desert area, practice some exercises and firing weapons, and then drive back into the towns they inhabit. This is because, Zelin said, they’ve noticed that the U.S. will fire a missile into a random patch of desert but will hesitate to attack a populated area.

Will McCants, an analyst with the CNA think tank, says that there’s been very little “blowback” we can directly tie to lethal drone strikes. While some new people might join terror groups in response to drone strikes, he noted, it is only Faisal Shahzad, the incompetent Times Square bomber, who has said he took up arms as a result.

Rather, Dr. McCants argues, drones have forced terror groups to change their tactics and set up “counterspy networks” where they try to locate and kill insiders who feed information to US intelligence.

Absence of data is also a problem on the U.S. side. Part of the drones program remains so heavily restricted by the U.S. government, there is no confirmation the program even exists. The targeting mechanisms for drones strikes is highly classified – so understanding how this type of information is collected, cross-checked, and analyzed would reveal methodologies and sources the government does not want to divulge.

With bad or missing data and uncooperative governments, can we really discuss the real costs – or benefits– of the drones program? From the bits of data we do have available, drones are actually lower-casualty alternatives to countering terrorism; as traditional Pakistani military offensives have killed countless civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Beyond these very imprecise measurements about the human cost, it is impossible to know the effectiveness of drones. The strikes kill both terrorists, and civilians – but we don’t know to what extent. Without more transparency about the government sanctioned use of drones, or even more oversight from Congress, we won’t be able to quantify the costs of these types of attacks… and the program will continue on in shadows.


  • Anonymous
  • Hristo Karastoyanov

    No, no and no! God will make this country pay for their sins in Iraq and Pakistan (and Afghanistan)!

  • Josephineguerra22

    I I wish for peace in the holy citys in Iraq. Afghanistan
    .lybia. Pakistan. Those innocent people die at what cost.
    Thats not what God wants.Innocent blood has
    Shed on both soil of land.And the Manny more unknown to amaricans.
    For war to stop and we be of one world. This is what God
    gave us we should charish every bit of the world and its people
    No man should have hate for it will linger and grow..No
    People can be strong and have a good faith with hate.

  • Heather

    Drones warfare is unethical, wrong and will come back to bite us.

  • Jwdsandiego1

    About 4 years I suggest that we “nuke” the entire state of Waziristan as it harbored the AL Queda and Pakistan seemed to claim that it ws ungovernable. Yes, that is a radical solution. But we have a radiacal probelm The use of drones is much more civilized—nopta known option when I made my suggestion. Frankly, I don’t care if they nuke the place or use drones. THe main thing is to mimimize the loss of our fine American boys. John Davis–and yes, you may quote me.

  • Samoyedgracie

    in the short run, the policy seems to be working.  No American wants to repeat 9/11.  However,  I believe that we “reap what we sow”.  In other words we are creating generations of enemies each time an innocent civilian is killed.  Because of this the war on terror will never end and may expand as more and more people in these politically charged countries suffer from the effects of US drone attacks.  On the moral front, we need to ask ourselves – what extent of violence are we obliged to commit to so that our safety is ensured?  As Cindy Sheeham (anti-war protester) once remarked “if innocent people are dying in order to keep me safe, then I don’t want to be safe.”  I voted for Obama because I believed he would seek more diplomatic avenues to war and I am disappointed that he has, in many ways, continued policies from the Bush era.

  • Marjoriewisor

    I remain intensely against the use of drones by our government. It is murder by remote control, much as if it were a video game. It is especially troubling that we continue to make use of them in spite of the lack of data proving their are the only effective means we have of fighting the terrorists.

  • Paintsongs

    I am also intensely against the use of drones. How did we get to the place where death by remote control and programming – is OK?  Here a person can direct a drone from, say, Los Angelos to hit and destroy in Afganistan. The target could be in a crowded area where a young person or a child who has a dream of being a dancer, a scientist, an artist, a doctor – is killed simply because the were close to “the target”.  It is immoral and cowardly to use drones.

  • Get Real

    Drones are necessary at this point in history.  Targets of drones who go among the innocent for protection are cowards.   Innocent people must report their presence or be slaughtered.

  • john Koutsouros

    so by your view that means its ok for terrorists to attack us citizens, we are hunting people who disagree with us, or want to harm us?? what you say is you disagree with them, you want to harm them, so you are in the same position as someone in say the tribal region of pakistan. so if someone disagrees with someone else, that gives them the right to fly a drone into their country and drop bombs? you are living amongst innocent, you are a coward. your double standards are a shame.