Drones: Counterterrorism But Not Strategy

As one of the few civilian Americans who has been present in a zone where the US operated its drone campaign, David Rohde has a fairly unique perspective from which to comment on the tactic. And while in this long piece on drones, he recognizes their value, he also warns against their risks.

In 2008, I saw this firsthand. Two Afghan colleagues and I were kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive in the tribal areas of Pakistan for seven months. From the ground, drones are terrifying weapons that can be heard circling overhead for hours at a time. They are a potent, unnerving symbol of unchecked American power. At the same time, they were clearly effective, killing foreign bomb-makers and preventing Taliban fighters from gathering in large groups. The experience left me convinced that drone strikes should be carried out — but very selectively.

Ultimately, he notes that in both Pakistan and Yemen, the drones are contributing to increased instability.

For me, the bottom line is that both governments’ approaches are failing. Pakistan’s economy is dismal. Its military continues to shelter Taliban fighters it sees as proxies to thwart Indian encroachment in Afghanistan. And the percentage of Pakistanis supporting the use of the Pakistani Army to fight extremists in the tribal areas — the key to eradicating militancy — dropped from a 53 percent majority in 2009 to 37 percent last year. Pakistan is more unstable today than it was when Obama took office.


Instead of decimating the organization, the Obama strikes have increased the ranks of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from 300 fighters in 2009 to more than 1,000 today, according to Gregory Johnsen, a leading Yemen expert at Princeton University. In January, the group briefly seized control of Radda, a town only 100 miles from the capital, Sanaa. “I don’t believe that the U.S. has a Yemen policy,” Johnsen told me. “What the U.S. has is a counterterrorism strategy that it applies to Yemen.”

The deaths of bin Laden and many of his lieutenants are a step forward, but Pakistan and Yemen are increasingly unstable. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country of 180 million with resilient militant networks; Yemen, an impoverished, failing state that is fast becoming a new al Qaeda stronghold. “They think they’ve won because of this approach,” the former administration official said, referring to the administration’s drone-heavy strategy. “A lot of us think there is going to be a lot bigger problems in the future.”


Retired military officials warn that drones and commando raids are no substitute for the difficult process of helping local leaders marginalize militants. Missile strikes that kill members of al Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan and Yemen do not strengthen economies, curb corruption, or improve government services.

The entire article seems to be an expression of Rohde’s hard-earned experience and the doubts of former defense officials who may or may not be Admiral Mike Mullen and Robert Gates (plus retired general David Barno, on the record).

I find that particularly interesting given the series of leaks–apparently from CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and some in Congress–complaining that David Petraeus has made drone targeting rules too restrictive. Rohde’s sources are saying the opposite–that even the more restrictive rules Petraeus put into place are too lax (though the Petraeus complaint seems to focus on Pakistan and Rohde includes Yemen in his scope).

But there’s also this remarkable comment from Ben Rhodes:

“The light U.S. footprint had benefits beyond less U.S. lives and resources,” Rhodes told me. “We believe the Libyan revolution is viewed as more legitimate. The U.S. is more welcome. And there is less potential for an insurgency because there aren’t foreign forces present.”

It is neither clear that the various factions that joined to take out Qaddafi will get along long term, even assuming Libya succeeds in hunting down the Qaddafi dead-enders. It is even less clear that Libyans will support the US friendly policies. But there are no Americans there to target so, Success!

But it seems that the Obama Doctrine measures success solely in terms of the insurgents-becoming-terrrorists we create, and not the insurgents targeting our allies. Which is why, I guess, the Administration doesn’t see Rohde’s point, that ultimately until we stabilize these countries, they will still present a danger.

9 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) The US government’s usage of drone strikes has become the “fast food” of our foreign and military policies. The emphasis is on our convenience, and not on the question of whether it is good for us (much less whether it is good for the parts of the world we target).

    “…that ultimately until we stabilize these countries, they will still present a danger.”

    2) It is an interesting point that you see or partially see that we believe it is our responsibility to stabilize these countries. If you are merely making an observation, then I agree that is indeed how many Americans feel.

    If you are stating a case for the defense of the point, I’d say that the case must be more finely nuanced.

    Where we have both a presence and interests, we do indeed have some level of responsibility. A troubled case for this might be Afghanistan.

    Where we have neither a presence or interest, or very little interest, should we have much in the way of responsibility? The conventional mores of “our brother’s keeper” come to mind, but is that practical or even pragmatic?

    In other words, what is the division of responsibility between ourselves and the people of the affected country themselves?

  2. MadDog says:

    Speaking of drone strikes, the US has a junior partner with the same tactic, and perhaps the same lack of strategy. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports:

    “Details of 99 UK drone strikes in Afghanistan revealed

    The British Ministry of Defence has carried out 248 drone strikes in Afghanistan to date, of which 60% are ‘secret and unreported’, a report has revealed.

    The report, by respected blog Drone Wars UK, looks back through operational updates published by the Royal Air Force (RAF) since June 2008. It is the first time that UK drone attacks in Afghanistan have been collated and charted.

    However, the group suspect their list is merely a ‘peak behind the curtain’. Details of only 99 of the 248 drone strikes have been revealed by the RAF (the total number being obtained through a Freedom of Information request), and the group feels that reports may have been ‘cherry-picked’, possibly to tone down collateral damage…”

  3. MadDog says:

    OT – Chuck Todd on MSNBC just reported that Andrew Breitbart died last night.

    Many other MSM sites are also reporting it.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: I don’t think it’s our job to provide security–we don’t necessarily do that in all parts of teh US. But destabilizing countries in the name of achieving our sole aim there is downright stupid.

  5. Bob Schacht says:

    I think this post exposes an important issue that has not gotten enough attention: American policy towards failed and failing states. Somalia is another one on this list. It is my impression that either we have no such policy, or that the policy is ad hoc and subservient to other policy interests. Nevertheless, ISTM that this is one of the most important issues of the 21st century.

    Bob in AZ

  6. Bob Schacht says:

    @klynn: Here are my votes:
    1. Ending the wars and terminating the AUMF (please please please!)
    2. Getting the Department of Justice to, um, do Justice to American war criminals, banksters, et al., and stop hiding behind State Secrets
    3. Moving the Health Care Act towards single payer (Medicare for all!)
    4. Jobs, jobs, jobs– e.g. Promoting Infrastructure repair and investment.
    5. Restructuring the home finance system to end the mortgage crisis without making low-income home owners bear the brunt of it all.

    OK, I’ll stop at 5.

    Bob in AZ

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