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Lisa Schirch Headshot

9 Costs of Drone Strikes

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Proponents of using drones and "signature strikes" against suspected militants offer a variety of arguments supporting their use, including their comparative precision, lower risks to U.S. forces, and their impact on disrupting al Qaeda. With such benefits, the Obama administration directed the CIA to quadruple the number of drone attacks in the last three years. But wide evidence suggests drones carry far-reaching risks and long-term costs, including fueling more support for militant leaders in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia, increasing threats to the U.S., undermining local authorities, and damaging U.S. credibility on all human rights concerns -- thereby undermining U.S. attempts to support human rights in countries such as Syria. The seduction of drones' short-term impacts loses its appeal alongside the significant long-term strategic and moral costs of this tactic.

1. Drones Substitute for a Coherent Strategy to Address Root Causes: Relying on the short-term tactics of drone strikes postpones and undermines the development of a comprehensive strategy to address the root causes driving militancy. Militant extremists are not simply a group of evil people without cause. Militant extremism is a mindset and a set of ideas. Drones do not kill their ideas. Rather drones amplify the voices of militant extremists who condemn foreign invasion and demand local control over their region. Drones bring legitimacy, credibility and sway public opinion toward the militant's arguments. Even if the drones kill militant extremists, it makes their ideas more powerful.

A more successful strategy will center on robust diplomatic engagement at all levels to address legitimate grievances. Tribal groups targeted by drones have legitimate grievances against their governments. A better strategy would draw tribal groups toward cooperation by fostering reconciliation and dialogue to address underlying grievances such as government corruption, vast unemployment and lack of basic services. In contrast, drone strikes decidedly turn local populations away from their own governments. A June 2012 International Crisis Group report argues that U.S. "focus on military funding has failed to deliver counter-terrorism dividends, instead entrenching the military's control over state institutions and delaying reforms. In order to help stabilize a fragile country in a conflict-prone region, the U.S. and other donors should focus instead on long-term civilian assistance to improve the quality of state services, in cooperation with local civil society organisations, NGOs with proven track records and national and provincial legislatures."

Civil society leaders in each country receiving drones plead with the U.S. to stop the counterproductive military attacks and instead use its global power to push for local and regional solutions to underlying diplomatic, humanitarian and development problems. But with a foreign policy that puts far more investment into military strategies than diplomatic strategies, U.S. diplomacy simply lacks the staff capacity and the training in principled negotiation to be the robust diplomatic presence needed in so many regions of the world.

2. Drones Fuel al Qaeda Networks and Anti-Americanism: Measurable body counts of suspected militants appeal to some U.S. policymakers amidst a lack of any other tangible signs of progress in Afghanistan or Pakistan. U.S. officials who acknowledge drone related civilian deaths claim, "sometimes you have to take a life to save lives." Yet there is not credible evidence that lives are being saved by drone attacks.

Drones are fueling anti-American militancy. Using drones on tribal areas is like taking a hammer to a beehive. It creates a fury of anti-Americanism. In the war of ideas, drones turn locals toward Al Qaeda and away from the United States. Militant groups are growing and multiplying in response to the use of drones. While militants themselves are unpopular, drone strikes seem to unite rather than separate civilians from militants. Drone strikes inspire frequent public protests, reproachful media coverage, and public polls showing widespread condemnation and fear of the strikes. In May 2012, the Washington Post reported that "Across the vast, rugged terrain of southern Yemen, an escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes is stirring increasing sympathy for al-Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States." CIA Pakistan station chief from 2004-2006, Robert Grenier states that drones create safe havens for militants. "It [the drone program] needs to be targeted much more finely. We have been seduced by them and the unintended consequences of our actions are going to outweigh the intended consequences."

3. Drones Create Humanitarian Crises, Seeding Long-Term Instability: Over a million internally displaced Pakistanis have fled their homes, schools, and businesses to escape drone bombings, military bombing, and ground fighting. In Yemen, drones have displaced nearly 100,000. Seven aid agencies warn that Yemen is on the brink of a catastrophic food crisis with 10 million people -- nearly half of the population lacking food to eat. Drone-related displacement disrupts long-term stability by decreasing the capacity of local people to respond through civil society initiatives that foster stability, democracy and moderation and increase displaced people's vulnerability to insurgent recruitment. The U.S. is spending billions of dollars on the drone program while failing to adequately respond to the humanitarian crisis that may have significant long-term political and economic impacts.

4. Drones Commit Human Rights Violations: Advocates of drones compare them with other bombs and note that they cause fewer civilian casualties than the "shock and awe" U.S. bombing in Iraq and Afghanistan that killed tens of thousands of civilians. U.S. officials waver on how many civilians have been killed in the drone program. Some say no civilians have been killed or reports of civilian deaths are only insurgent propaganda. The Obama Administration's low drone casualty rates rely on its own assumption that "all military-age males in a strike zone are combatants" and are guilty unless proven innocent, even if there is no proof linking young men to any type of militant activity. U.S. denial that significant numbers of civilians are being killed contradicts significant and diverse journalist and research reports on the ground.

At a June 2012 conference on drones, United Nations Special Rapporteur cited the Pakistan Human Rights Commission's estimates that U.S. drone strikes killed at least 957 people in Pakistan in 2010 and that on average 20% of drone victims are civilians, not militants. He concludes that perhaps thousands of civilians have been killed in 300 drone strikes there since 2004.

5. Drones Risk "50 Years of International Law": A variety of actors challenge the legality of drone strikes. Former President Jimmy Carter claims drones violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, noting this violation "abets our enemies and alienates our friends." In July 2009, U.N. Human Rights Council Special Investigator Philip Alston chastised the U.S. for failing to track, investigate, and punish low ranking soldiers for drone strikes that kill civilians and for failing to tell the public the extent of civilian deaths. Alston also critiqued the U.S. military justice system for "failing to provide ordinary people... basic information on the status of investigations into civilian casualties or prosecutions resulting therefrom." Human rights experts point to the illegality of unacceptably high collateral damage to civilians, facilities, equipment, and property while resulting in the deaths of a disproportionately low number of lawful military targets.

Repeating the 2009 calls from the United Nations for the United States to account for its use of drone warfare and its denial that drones are killing civilians despite widespread evidence to the contrary, UN Special Rapporteur noted U.S. use of drones threatens to undermine "50 years of international law" and encourages other countries to ignore or redefine international law. Drones undermine U.S. credibility on human rights. As an example, Russia and China have called for investigations in U.S. drone in the U.N. Human Rights Council while the U.S. is pushing both of those countries to stop their support for the Syrian government. U.S. drone policy thereby undermines U.S. stated policy supporting human rights in Syria and elsewhere.

In Pakistan, repeated reports document that drones fire first on the target, and then on the mourners and humanitarian responders seeking to help the wounded or attend their funerals, as these people are deemed sympathizers and thus also counted as "combatants" rather than civilians, even though they include women and children. If this can be documented, the U.S. would be in direct violation of International Humanitarian Law. The U.S. lacks credibility to advocate for human rights and rule of law when it does not seem to apply equal standards to its own policies and citizens.

6. Drones Contribute to Perceptions of U.S. Double Standards: The U.S. has blocked efforts for drone victims to pursue their claims in Pakistani courts. Meanwhile USAID fosters "rule of law" programs in Pakistan. But Pakistani's note these USAID efforts are undermined by the continuing series of events in Pakistan that grant Americans immunity for their crimes, such as civilian drone victims, the saga of Raymond Davis, the CIA's use of immunization campaigns to identify bin Laden, and accidental deaths of Pakistani forces.

Furthermore, citizens of countries where the U.S. uses drones ask whether American citizens would accept the use of drones on an American religious center or school if insurgents were hiding there alongside civilians. In local perspectives, drone attacks are undemocratic and illustrate that the U.S. devalues the lives of people in other countries, putting U.S. interests above the lives of Pakistanis, Somalis, and Yemenis.

7. Drones Undermine Government Authority and Legitimacy, Cause State Fragility: Unilateral U.S. use of drones is seen to undermine state sovereignty and legitimacy, stir political unrest, and challenge alliances. The governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan publically denounced drone strikes to distance themselves from public anger. Rumors posit that the government's privately consented to the strikes. The public's already tenuous relationship with their governments suffer as the public critiques drones strikes as merely furthering U.S. interests and undermining their own interests and sovereignty.

8. Drones Draw Attention Away from Greater Nuclear Security Threats in Pakistan: Supporting the legitimacy and authority of democratic governments is critical. The threat of anti-government militants overthrowing the government of Pakistan and gaining control of its nuclear capability is a far greater danger than threats from drone targets. Some argue the unpopular Pakistan government, accused of nodding consent to the U.S. drone bombings, prevents the growing number of anti-American militants from gaining access to a functioning nuclear missile arsenal.

9. Drones Communicate Cowardice, Undermining Ability to Form Tribal Alliances: According to counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, "using robots from the air ... looks both cowardly and weak" to local populations. Anti-American cartoons and jokes feature the drones as symbols of American impotence or cowardice. Given the importance of bravery and courage in tribal cultures, the use of drone strikes signals untrustworthiness, making it more difficult for the U.S. to form agreements or even get information from key tribal leaders. The drone strikes undermine even basic cooperation and information sharing by local populations.