Drones: Tactical Success’, Strategic Failures

by Joshua Brumage, Towson University

Since 2004, more than 400 drone strikes have been carried out by the United States in Pakistan alone. These weapons have become a staple in the fight against terrorism. However, if the objective of the War on Terror is to “stop terrorist attacks against the United States, its citizens, its interests, and our friends and allies around the world,” then has the use of unmanned drone strikes helped achieve this objective? Considering the fact that number of global deaths cause by terrorism has been rising, the answer may be just the opposite. It is important that current tactics and strategies, such as the prolific use of drones, be analyzed to determine if they are indeed exacerbating the problem, instead of fixing it.

The use of drones has had a recognizable tactical effect. Before his death, Osama bin Laden wrote to his chief of staff, advising him that members of al Qaeda operating in the tribal regions of Pakistan (which have seen some of the heaviest amount of drone activity) should only move on overcast days to avoid being seen by satellites and drones, and that they should consider moving to the Kunar province in Afghanistan. Key Taliban and al Qaeda leaders have been eliminated by the strikes, such as Baitullah Mehsud, leader of a Pakistani militant group affiliated with the Taliban. Drone strikes are also unique in that they accomplish these tasks without endangering the lives of any United States personnel. As a result, the response among United States policymakers has been largely positive, leading to the program’s escalation.

Why then, are the numbers of terrorist attacks in the world rising? The answer lies in the relationship between tactics and strategy. In The Future of Strategy, Colin S. Gray writes that strategy serves as the “bridge” between tactics and politics. If tactics refers to actions taken on the battlefield, then strategy is using these actions to produce an effect, or consequence, that helps one achieve the political objective. In other words, successful tactics that do not produce a strategic effect are largely of little consequence. Worse still, tactical victories won without consideration for their possible effects on the political objective can actually have a negative strategic effect. A prime example is the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War, when North Vietnamese forces launched surprise attacks across South Vietnam. By all accounts, the Tet Offensive was a major tactical victory for the United States; the Viet Cong was decimated, with over 33,000 dead compared to approximately 3,470 dead for the United States and their allies. However, the offensive is considered a turning point in the Vietnam War, and not in favor of the United States. Although Hanoi did not achieve their objective of overthrowing the South Vietnamese government, the offensive had the strategic effect of showing the American public that the war was not going as well as the United States government had led them to believe. Public support waned, and eventually a weary and frustrated United States military withdrew from the country, which was then unified by North Vietnam.

So, what has been the strategic effect of the United States’ drone strikes? The aforementioned attack that killed Baitullah Mehsud also resulted in the deaths of four members of his family. Additionally, the strike was preceded by sixteen others that failed to kill Mehsud, and resulted in anywhere between 207 and 321 deaths. In all, the United States government released a statement in 2016 estimated that between 2009 and 2016, between 64 and 116 non-combatants had been killed in drone strikes. Estimates by third parties are less optimistic, ranging between 200 and over 800. In Pakistan, the reaction to these tactics has been understandably hostile. A 2011 poll among the Pakistani public showed that 89 percent think the strikes kill too many innocent bystanders, and anti-US demonstrations are common in the country.

The center of gravity of insurgent groups such as al Qaeda has been identified as their ideology; in order to effectively combat them, one must present an alternative ideology that the public finds preferable to that of the extremist’s. The increased use of drones in an attempt to deter terrorist activities has been unsuccessful because it fails to produce a preferable alternative. Every civilian killed by a drone strike stirs outrage among the civilian population. Insurgent leaders like Baitullah Mehsud are able to tap into these feelings and offer an opportunity to seek revenge against the instigators: the United States. For example, a Pakistani immigrant tried (unsuccessfully) to commit an act of terrorism in Times Square in 2010. During his trial, he cited American drone strikes as being the inspiration behind his plot. If the United States truly wishes to reduce or eliminate worldwide terrorism, it would behoove policymakers and strategists to examine their tactics, and adopt ones that more effectively help them achieve this objective.

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