The expected utility of drone strikes


A recent article in The Economist asks whether US drone strikes in Pakistan help or hinder the war on terror. A friend of mine explained to me why he thought they did more harm than good. Suppose a drone strike takes out two Al Qaeda operatives, he said, but causes several civilian casualties too. The outrage caused by this collateral damage will inflame anti-US sentiment in Pakistan, and some of that sentiment will translate into support for Al Qaeda.  Some of that support will further translate into some people actually joining Al Qaeda.  Even if only 0.1% of Pakistanis are sufficiently outraged by the drone strike to support Al Qaeda, and only 0.1% of them will actually join the organization, that is still 170 new recruits (since Pakistan has a population of 170 million).  So the net gain for Al Qaeda is 168 terrorists (170 new recruits minus 2 casualties).

Of course, the precise figures will depend in part on the ratio of terrorists killed to civilian casualties, and there is some disagreement about this.  In his excellent book, Task Force Black, the BBC journalist Mark Urban claims that “most of the people killed in these attacks are innocent bystanders” (p.xiv, Foreword to Paperback Edition,2011). But The New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank, estimates that 80% of the 2,551 people killed in drone strikes since 2004 were militants, rising to an astonishing 95% in 2010. The expected utility of drone strikes could depend crucially on who is right.

Even if the drone strikes mainly kill militants, their utility may also depend on whether these are terrorist chiefs or low-level fighters. According to the New America Foundation, out of the 2,551 deaths, only 35 were recognized militant chiefs, or just 1.3% of the total. Among these high-level hits was the fearsome leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, who was the country’s number one public enemy. Nevertheless, the vast majority of targets have been low-level fighters.

There are also disagreements about local perceptions.  While those in Islamabad might react with anger, many locals privately support the strikes against extremists who have overrun their homeland.  What may inflame anti-US sentiment more than the civilian casualties in themselves, however, may be the lack of transparency and accountability. There is no investigation of civilian casualties, and no compensation paid, and some question the legal basis of the attacks.

It is probably too early to be sure whether the drone strikes are harming al-Qaeda and related groups, or spurring on Afghanistan’s powerful insurgency.  But my friend’s argument does at least set out the terms in which we should be thinking about this question, and suggest the kinds of data we need to collect before we can reach a definitive verdict.  How, for example, can we measure anti-US sentiment? And what objective metrics might we use to judge overall success?  One such metric might be the number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, on this measure, the drone strikes do not appear to be achieving their aim; over the past year, the number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan, many launched from Pakistan, has soared.

2 thoughts on “The expected utility of drone strikes

  1. While not having a definite opinion on the matter, I would offer two other points in the favor of drone strikes.
    Firstly, they are supposed to target high value leadership or technical specialists. The loss of the two killed in your worked example may be much greater to the militants than the gain of 168 raw recruits, especially if those recruits are likely to be uneducated locals.
    Secondly, the strikes may establish the militants as dangerous people to stand close to. Even if you support them and their cause, your are certainly not going to invite them to your daughters wedding, or be keen to pop around for tea. The tendency of militant leaders to be at the center of large, unexpected explosions is likely to deter all but the most foolhardy and loyal of supporters.

  2. I don’t agree that your friend’s calculation points to a useful way to think about things. When the US was losing in Vietnam according to all conventional measures (more territory controlled, enemy suing for peace, gaining specific goals), it invented the “body count” metric. The idea that you’re going to win the war by killing all the enemy, and therefore have to kill them faster than they recruit, is crazy. On top of that, assuming number of recruits is a linear function of civilian casualties of drone strikes is silly. The point of drone strikes has to be to disrupt enemy operations and make life unpleasant enough that the enemy quits fighting.

    There are two types of strikes. Prior to 2008, the strikes were directed at specific senior commanders and technical experts. These appear to have been effective in killing those people. There weren’t many strikes, because each one took a lot of intelligence to set up. The only civilian casualties from these came when the drones missed (including 100 or more civilians killed in two failed attacks on Ayman al-Zawahri in 2006). The main objections to these attacks are that they are assassination carried out by civilians, not battles between soldiers; and that the drones are not accurate enough for the job.

    Starting in 2008 and accelerating under President Obama, the number of strikes has increased. There were a total of nine strikes from 2004 to 2007 versus 118 in 2010 (2011 is on a pace for about 75). The targets of most of these increased strikes are facilities rather than individuals. As a result, there have been fewer gross misses where completely random civilians are killed. Instead the strikes hit a compound, killing mostly low-level combatants and also some arguable civilians living in or next to a militant compound.

    I think a risk calculation indicates assassination is a bad idea. Killing leaders does not necessarily make a terrorist organization weaker or more reasonable. Unless you’re planning to kill everyone sympathetic to the enemy, you need leaders to make peace with. And terrorists do not require the kind of large-scale organization that senior commanders facilitate; they are most effective in cell structures. Assassination is frowned upon even in war and the moral objections plus the occasional massive and undeniable errors make it a bad strategy.

    Lobbing missiles into enemy training camps and operations compounds makes perfect sense to me. If you’re not doing this, you’re not fighting a war. How many true civilians are in these camps? And if you’re not willing to risk them, the enemy will place a civilian in every camp.

    Personally, I don’t think the US has any business doing any fighting in Pakistan but if we are going to fight, drones are no worse than artillery, bombs or bullets.

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