Why America’s drone strikes are counterproductive

The American President Barack Obama has repeatedly defended deadly drone strikes in which terror suspects are killed around the world by US military/CIA operations. But what effects do these strikes have – on America, on the areas where they take place, and on the terrorist organizations they are supposed to target?

MQ-1 Predator

What drone strikes do to America

They come along with increasing government secrecy and an extreme lack of accountability. If civilians die, if the wrong people are targeted, nobody is ever held responsible and the Obama administration has been trying hard to keep the ugly face of drone wars hidden from the American public. Drone strikes, just like indefinite detention and inhuman interrogation methods, undermine confidence in American democracy. Drone strikes are an assault on the basic assertion from which all human rights have been derived from: the conviction that all men are created equal, and have equal rights. In the drone wars, this principle is not valid anymore. If you are a criminal with American citizenship, and you are accused of committing a serious crime, you will have a trial, a defense lawyer, the right to make a statement and the right to remain silent. Evidence will be presented against you and if the jury and the court find it convincing, and you committed a murder or a similarly terrible crime, you might end up on death row in some states. These procedures are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights and your rights as a suspect are protected by law- whereas, if you were a foreign citizen living somewhere in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Somalia, or if you were an American citizen living there, you would be without any rights simply because you live in those areas. The President of the United States could sentence you to death by signing a decree. You would have no defense lawyer, there would be no public trial, and the „crime“ you allegedly committed can be as vaguely defined as having some kind of connection to jihadist groups.

So as long as the drone wars exist, the US are essentially disregarding the idea that all mean are created equal and have the same rights. In fact, the rights you have before the US might kill you depend on the place you are in: in America and Western nations, you are granted certain rights even if you are a crime suspect. In Sana’a , Karachi, Kabul and Mogadischu, you are fair game to the United States. Is this fair and logical? Or is it kind of arbitrary, Un-american and hypocritical?

In addition to that, just try to imagine what could happen if the drone technology fell into the wrong hands? Imagine a rogue president somehow entering the White House. He would have the power to kill you if he could track your phone. Thanks to the NSA’s miracles in surveillance, he wouldn’t need more that information about your SIM card to “geolocate” you, then get rid of you. And even under a president who is not (yet) hunting down his critics (something that would be facilitated by drone technology), there is a major shift towards the normalization of assassinations instead of capture operations. In a 2012 study on drone strikes, the Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic and the Center for Civilians in Conflict described this development:

As covert drone strikes become the norm, actions or conduct by individuals that, in other circumstances, would lead to investigation or detention are increasingly blurring into a basis for lethal targeting. […]The increasing use of weaponized drone technology in areas outside traditional armed conflict has corresponded with an expansion in the scope of individuals the US claims legal authority to target.“ (page 75)

What drone strikes do to the communities where they take place

According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the drone strikes in Pakistan have cost anything between 416 and 959 civilians. In Yemen, the number lies between 64 and 83 civilians. Up to 165 civilians might have been killed in additional, not confirmed drone strikes and covert operations in Yemen alone. US strikes in Somalia have killed no civilians or possibly one; however, other covert operations might have resulted in the death of up to 47 civilians. But the Columbia Law School/Center for Civilians in Conflict study emphasizes that numbers alone cannot accurately describe the toll the strikes take on communities:

“The numbers debate aside, one civilian death or injury is enough to dramatically alter families’ lives. In Pakistan, families are often large, and their well being is intricately connected among many members. The death of one member can create long-lasting instability, particularly if a breadwinner is killed […]In regions most often targeted by drones, women often have a limited earning capacity, and savings and insurance are not common, which leaves widows and orphans extremely vulnerable. Sons may drop out of school to provide for their family, and daughters may forgo education to become care takers. (pages 20-21)

In addition, the report concludes that drone strikes have led to retaliation against locals in the affected communities suspected of cooperating with the Americans:

“In one case reported by the Los Angeles Times , a shop owner was taken from his shop in Mir Ali by a band of Khorasan gunmen, who threw him into a car and drove away. According to a relative, they took him to a safe house where they locked up him and others suspected of spying for the US drone program. The Khorasan bludgeoned him with sticks for eight weeks, trying to get him to confess that he was a spy, which his relative said he was not.Unable to determine whether he was guilty, the Khorasan released him to another militant group, which set him free 10 days later.” (page 21)

What drone strikes do to the enemy

Islamist militant group have repeatedly used drone strikes as a justification for its own crimes. The report says that

„In Somalia, on October 4, 2011, al-Shabaab bombed the Transitional Federal Government compound in Mogadishu as revenge for the growing number of drone strikes against its forces, according to one report. The suicide bombing killed over 70 people and injured hundreds more, most of whom were Somali teenagers“ (page 21)

In addition, while drone strikes might create short-term military successes in the fight against Islamist terrorism, over a longer period of time, they are bound to increase hatred and anger against America in the regions affected. The report quotes David Kilcullen, former counterinsurgency adviser to General David Petraeus, and Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security and a former US army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince home owners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.” (page 23)

A 2012 investigation by the Washington Post on the effects of US drone strikes in Yemen found that

“An unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population”

The Post quotes Mohammed al-Ahmadi, a legal coordinator for a local human rights group:

“Every time the American attacks increase, they increase the rage of the Yemeni people, especially in al-Qaeda-controlled areas […] The drones are killing al-Qaeda leaders, but they are also turning them into heroes”

In October 2013, in an article for the Cairo Review, Nabeel Khoury, the deputy chief of mission for the US State Department in Yemen from 2004 to 2007, wrote:

„Drone strikes take out a few bad guys to be sure, but they also kill a large number of innocent civilians. Given Yemen’s tribal structure, the U.S. generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] operative killed by drones.“


Drone strikes are ineffective and counterproductive. They erode the values America has defended for centuries, and undermine the credibility and moral highground America needs in the War on Terror. They have a significant effect on the communities where they take place, in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, by causing follow-up violence against alleged spies for the US military and create an atmosphere of suspicion, helplessness and fear in areas that might be attacked using drones. They leave entire families mourning, unable to replace the lost breadwinner(s) and often force the sons and daughters to give up education in order to help the family get by. Lastly, drone strikes lead to radicalization of the local population, and actually help jihadist groups to recruit new members.






Image source  : U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt

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