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Lawfare: The Effectiveness of Drone Strikes in Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism Campaigns

Author: James Igoe Walsh
September 2013


"While drones have attracted considerable attention, we know little about how effective they are as tools of punishment and deterrence. In particular, it is not clear how, if at all, drones differ from other technologies of violence, what experience with broadly similar technologies in past conflicts suggests will be the likely consequences of drone strikes, and what systematic analysis of the available evidence suggests about the effects of the drone campaigns. This monograph seeks to address these open questions."

The United States increasingly relies on unmanned aerial vehicles—better known as drones—to target insurgent and terrorist groups around the world. Drones have a number of advantages that could fundamentally alter how the United States engages in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. Drones place no U.S. military personnel at risk. They do not require a large "footprint" of U.S. personnel overseas. They are armed with accurate missiles that have the capacity to target individuals, automobiles, and sections of structures such as rooms in a large house. Perhaps the most consequential advantage of drones is their ability to integrate intelligence collection with decisions to use force. These characteristics should make drones especially effective at targeting only the individuals against whom the United States wishes to use force, and minimizing harm to noncombatants. This highly selective use of force has the potential to allow the United States to achieve its counterinsurgency objectives at lower cost and risk.

Critics, though, suggest that drone strikes have been ineffective or have actually backfired. Drone strikes are ineffective if some insurgent organizations are large and resilient enough to survive the deaths of their leaders and rank-and-file members. Many observers suggest that any degradation of insurgent organizations caused by drone strikes is outweighed by the ability of such organizations to exploit even small numbers of civilian casualties with the goals of persuading people to join or support the insurgency. A less common criticism of the drone strike campaign focuses on how such strikes influence relationships among insurgent organizations. While drone operators may be able to distinguish civilians from militants, it is more difficult to determine if a militant or group of militants are core members of one insurgent organization or another. This presents a real problem where multiple insurgent organizations are operating, and the United States does not wish to target all of them. This may actually promote cooperation among these groups and lead them to focus more of their energies on using violence in ways that undermine U.S. goals.

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