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The Costs of Drone Strikes

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No matter the outcome of President Obama's deliberations about US strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the tactic of using unmanned drone strikes should be taken off the table. The many costs of disrupting Al Qaeda and the Taliban via drone strikes outweigh the benefits.

Some experts say drone strikes may become the weapon of choice as support for large numbers of US troops in Afghanistan decreases among the US public and policymakers. Advocates laud drones for disrupting Al Qaeda and Taliban networks and safe havens by killing nine out of 20 senior operatives from Al Qaeda and threatening key leaders without risking the lives of US troops. These measurable body counts appeal to some policymakers amidst a lack of any other tangible signs of progress in Afghanistan.

Yet the drone tactic undermines a long-term comprehensive strategy for the region. Drones kill more civilians than insurgents. The Brookings Institution estimated in July 2009 that a ratio of ten civilians die for every militant killed in a drone strike. Local authorities say the ratio is more like 50 civilians killed for every 1 insurgent. Regardless of the exact number, civilian deaths have both moral and strategic implications.

High civilian casualty rates, particularly from US unilateral military maneuvers, undermine both Pakistani and Afghan state sovereignty and legitimacy, stir political unrest, and challenge alliances. The governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan publically denounce drone strikes to distance themselves from public anger. While rumors posit that the government's privately consent. The expanding use of drone strikes gives the impression to an increasingly media-savvy public that these governments have little ability to influence or control external military forces.

The drone strikes draw attention away form the greater nuclear security threats in Pakistan. The threat of anti-government militants overthrowing the government of Pakistan and gaining control of its nuclear capability is a far greater danger than Al Qaeda. The weak, unpopular Pakistan government prevents the growing number of anti-American militants from gaining access to a functioning nuclear missile arsenal.

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. Counterinsurgency experts claim drone strikes play into the hands of militant propaganda seeking to rally and recruit local people to their cause. Pakistani military leaders say that each drone killing of civilians brings several new recruits to Taliban leaders from drone victim's families who are required under tribal code to seek revenge.

A variety of actors challenge the legality of drone strikes. In July 2009, U.N. Human Rights Council Special Investigator Philip Alston chastised the US for failing to track, investigate, and punish low ranking soldiers for drone strikes that kill civilians, for failing to tell the public the extent of civilian deaths, and for not compensating families of victims.

Drone strikes lead to losing the 'war of ideas' as they exacerbate underlying grievances such as corruption, vast unemployment and lack of basic services. 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 US to form agreements or even get information from key tribal leaders.

Relying on the short-term tactics of drone strikes postpones and undermines the development of a comprehensive strategy. A more successful strategy will center on population-centric rather than enemy-centric tactics, widespread investments in development, and robust diplomatic engagement at all levels.

Lisa Schirch is Director of the 3D Security Initiative and Professor of Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.