Four Myths about Drone Strikes
Image Credit: U.S. Air Force

Four Myths about Drone Strikes


On June 4, a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan killed 15 people, including senior al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi. And, with a recent New York Times report highlighting the Obama administration’s decision-making over the program, the CIA’s covert war in Pakistan’s tribal areas has once again taken center stage in discussion of U.S.-Pakistan relations.

Drone attacks in Pakistan, which have increased exponentially under President Barack Obama, have prompted huge controversy. The debate around them, however, has become extremely polarized, leaving little space in the middle for a more nuanced discussion. As a result, the whole debate over the issue has generated numerous myths and inaccuracies.

Drone attacks raise important ethical and legal questions, questions that have long been debated by proponents and critics alike. For the moment, though, we will put these aside. Instead, relying on available statistical and anecdotal evidence, there are four major myths about the program that have emerged within the U.S. and Pakistan that should be recognized and responded to.

Myth number one, promoted by the Obama administration, is that drone strikes have resulted in few civilian casualties. The available evidence, however, suggests that civilian casualties from drone strikes are substantial. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports between 2,464 and 3,145 fatalities from drone attacks in Pakistan, of which 482 to 830 have been civilians. According to the New America Foundation, estimated civilian fatalities range from 293 to 471.

The fact that the administration’s criterion for identifying combatants is limited to “all military-age males in a strike zone” means innocent civilians will inevitably be targeted when the militants hide amongst them. Moreover, the emphasis the administration places on the efficiency of such attacks is misleading, as the relative precision of drone strikes is of little consequence if the absolute number of civilian casualties keeps increasing.

The second myth, promoted in Pakistan, is that drone strikes are counter-productive. There are two aspects to this argument from a security perspective: drone strikes are harmful because they cause militants to retaliate by launching terrorist attacks, and they also help their recruitment efforts. The data so far, however, seems to suggest otherwise as terrorist attacks have fallen in Pakistan with the escalation of the drone program. Furthermore, a recent study also found a negative correlation between drone strikes and terrorist activity the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. There’s no evidence to suggest that recruitment by militant groups has increased either.

A separate concern is that the drone strikes offer opposition groups within and outside the government ammunition with which to mobilize anti-American sentiment, making support for U.S. policies politically costly. Certainly, although drone strikes are clearly effective in terms of their stated security-centric goals, such political and social consequences do genuinely warrant discussion.

October 16, 2012 at 03:25

Who gave you the right to drop bombs in another country. It's a criminal act of war against a sovereign nation and its people. 

[...] on autopilot, of course.  J. Michael Cole of “The Diplomat” reports: …although the use of drones substantially increases operational effectiveness — and, in the case of targeted killings, adds to [...]

August 8, 2012 at 06:20

It's not about drones! If they didn't have drones they'd be using ground attack aircraft.
It is going to take some smart politics to stop the attacks. Regarding Pakistan; I think it's about the NATO supply line to/from Afghanistan. So, as long as the supply line is harassed there will be drone attacks.
Also, mini drones and mini drone weapons are being researched and developed. 

Dr. Rice
June 23, 2012 at 09:41

Let us assume that the collateral damage associated with drone strikes is lower than it is believed by the public, this is irrelevant given that if enough people believe in an illusion, it becomes real. Do you think people on the ground where drone strikes care if there was just cause for these attacks in their own backyard, especially when someone they knows (who happens to be innocent) dies. I am sure for every innocent who has died or injured from  a drone attack, at least 2 people decided they wanted to fight the imperial powers that invade their homeland.

June 13, 2012 at 00:44

Jim you got it spot on! What is happening to people. where did this thing called ‘Rule of Law’, ‘Power of democracy’ US had gone in Libya. Isn’t this two faced attitude when Mother of Democracy (Pakistani Parliament) passed a resolution against US drone attacks.
You guys are butchers, have you ever thought about infants who are killed without any trial. Who decides who is a terrorist of not? Intelligence? Well CIA can’t directly operate in FATA so they hire boggy men, The whole building of morals is based on the verdicts of these operatives.
If there’s an acquisition on someone, bring them to justice, court of law! For Godsake they are from stone-age but where is the mantra of Human rights, you keep churning at other countries! So many contradictions.
This report is based on illusions, go and ask someone in Pakistan, they will tell you who is being killed on ground and how much they Like Obama after they come from the burial of their innocent relatives killed in Drone attacks. Why the whole Pakistan is against opening the supply line of US Army and Nato? thanks to Drone attacks, don’t expect presents in return from Pakistanis.

June 12, 2012 at 20:38

I once discussed with a friend the Phoenix program that I had read about.

He said the USA called it an assination program, our country just called it war.

Same actions occured, different war of viewing it I guess.

Errol T
June 12, 2012 at 07:11

There must be a better way of eliminating targets… Dropping explosives leaves too much collateral damage.

June 11, 2012 at 22:38

Drone attacks could have the same problem as they did for President Clinton in the Balkans. Clinton used smart bombs to strike targets without the loss of American lives. The major difference here is the size of the ordinance and the scale of collateral damage (much larger with a smart bomb).

One of the big issues here is whether the policy is firm, or whether a good policy is in place. Further its proximity to the fall Presidental elections where a weak(ened) President is attempting to look tough may be twisting policy to suit a domestic issue.

My concern is whether we are being used by the Pakistanis to aid in their desire to control the FATA region without dealing with the reasons why Pakistan cannot control this region by themselves. Additionally, we should be asking whether this is a sound policy with the adversarial problems between Pakistan and India.

Pakistani goals and motivations may not be the same as ours. In particular Americans frequently do not understand that not everyone shares in our mores. It becomes even more difficult to bridge this mores divide when we show ignorant indifference to the outcomes of our technology.

June 11, 2012 at 13:43

@Jim1980 Can you really make sense with their (militant) action? They are like living in stone age and civil rules in modern soceity and human life is nothing to them.

June 11, 2012 at 12:58

I’m sorry if people are ‘offended’ by drone strikes. I’d rather see the US drop 500 and 1000 lb bombs, and FAE (Fuel-air explosive) bombs. Heck, after 9/11, I was fully prepared to see most of Afganistan turned into a glass parking lot!

And I’ll agree-the only thing that many in the region understand is brute force. IF you know someone is going to drop a 500lb bomb on your mud hut, then you’ll try to make nice. You’d better.

And for the whiners out there? The US didn’t cause 9/11, or the USS Cole, or many of the other ‘terrorist’ incidents, regardless of what the apologists out there claim. The US does not indescriminately kill and injure innocents (unless they harbor those we are hunting-then tough luck)! I think the US and our allies should wage war so terribly and horribly complete that only an insane person would wish to mess with us.

Just my opinion.

TD Baker
June 11, 2012 at 02:48

Regardless of civilian casualties, as a result of Drone strikes against Al Qaeda or militant Taliban groups, the possible benefits to overall Pakistan and U.S. objectives as a result of behavior changes and altering the personal choices of a bad Taliban or Al Qaeda supporter are what casualties and potential casualties produce. Pakistan wants the Taliban as a irregular warfare hedge against India but they also want them under control. The FATA had become a largely uncontrollable area since Al Qaeda and allied Taliban groups reorganized and began operations against the Afghan government and U.S. operations efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Do not forget the insurgency problems Pakistan had with militant Al Qaeda and affiliated groups in the Swat Valley. Pakistan will accept the good and the bad among the Taliban if they can control them. Pakistan will tacitly allow the U.S. to conduct its operations especially if the result would be that the less than controllable inhabitants of the FATA, over time, decide that association with Al Qaeda or renegade militant Taliban groups is too much of a risk to their lives and thus they stop supporting the bad guys. An unattributed quote from a common sense person, once said, “if you want a persons attention you beat the snot out of them or catch them on fire.” The risk of a hellfire or 500 lb bomb crashing through your mud hut will catch your attention and potentially change your choice of who you associate with. The more important questions is how strong is the U.S. will keep up the presssure will last. Behavioral change take time.

June 10, 2012 at 11:51

By American apologists and they don’t even address illegal action of US military.

For example, Pakistan is used to be solid allied of US against Soviet supported India. Now they in general hate us. Who care if a couple of researchers said “There’s no evidence to suggest that recruitment by militant groups has increased either”? Are you suggest that Pakistan’s choice is either fight US or approve the US action? How about other alternatives? They voiced in their government and stop making US military life harder in those regions.

It is this type of fault logic that makes this whole article worthless.

As for Brad, you should be shame for your statement. Pakistan are people too. Just because those women and children are not related to you does not mean that their life worth less. It is attitude like you gives American bad name.

June 9, 2012 at 22:02

Finally, a somewhat complete statistical analysis of the ups and downs of this campaign. This artcile puts to rest a lot of the assumptions that people in Pakistan and the U.S have about the drone attacks.

I was surprised to learn that a majority of the people in the FATA support these strikes. Even if there is about 25% civilian casualty rate, the fact that those very same civilians support these strikes is telling of the programs success. Also, people living with Al-Qaeda’s #2 have to know the danager of doing so. We cannot allow these cowards to use their wifes as human shields. I agree with the decision to consider all fighting age males in a target area legitimate targets too.

June 9, 2012 at 14:36

US-Pakistan relations go back many decades, runs deep and there is more than meets the eyes.

The US drone attacks, apart from serving the routine utility, is also intended to hoodwink the other major players in the region. Drone attacks are most visible tools of giving an impression that the US is violating Pakistan’s sovereignty, there is clash of interests, and the US is at war with Pakistan. However truth could not be further.

The US-Pakistan spat and the drone controversy is stage managed drama between the US and its major non-NATO ally Pakistan.

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