Q. Do drone strikes “work”?
If drone strikes do not work, then it makes little sense to consider the politics, legality, and ethics of their use. In other words, the deck would be so stacked against repeated strikes that drones would cease to be useful in a military capacity. The prevalent use of drones by the United States suggests that at least some high-l evel individuals think they have value. The Obama administration has repeatedly defended its use of drone strikes as "narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us," and even critics acknowledge that the use of armed drones has been successful in eliminating members of Al-Qaeda.36 Perhaps the more vexing question though is not the tactical question of whether drone strikes have killed a number of suspected terrorists, a point on which most sides can agree, but the strategic question of whether this is an effective longer- term strategy. In other words, are drone strikes creating more terrorists than they kill?
The reasoning behind the possibility that drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill is as follows: Drone strikes taking place in areas such as Pakistan are seen by some individuals in those countries as a violation of sovereignty. The strikes also occasionally kill civilians, and the drones themselves are terrifying—imagine hearing the constant buzz of a drone overhead. As one individual indicated to New Yorker writer Steve Coll, "drones may kill relatively few but they terrify many more. They turned the people into psychiatric patients. The F-i6s might be less accurate but they come and go."37 According to this account, drones have alienated large numbers of the populace, causing individuals to take up arms against the perpetrators, in this case the United States. Drones then, based on this argument, create a backlash effect, killing some militants in the short term but creating far more in the long term.
There is much anecdotal evidence to this effect. In a 2012 tweet, a Yemeni lawyer wrote: "Dear Obama, when a US drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with Al Qaeda." This view suggests that the motivation of revenge drives individuals to become militant, and not the ideology surrounding extremist Muslim groups. Another piece of evidence in this vein is the uptick of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) members, which spiked in the years after drone strikes. AQAP consisted of a few hundred members in 2009, with no regional influence. By 2012 it had thousands of members and had control of some territory in Yemen.38 Greg Johnsen, who has spent a considerable amount of time in Yemen, has concluded that drone strikes have helped recruitment of AQAP—they are the reason why the United States "lost Yemen." With a large number of strikes and a local base for training militants, Yemen has become a breeding ground for future terrorists.39 The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient for 2014, Malala Yousafzai, met with President Obama at the White House and expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of drone strikes, arguing that a more effective long-term strategy is to send books, not drones.
While this line of thinking is certainly compelling, critics counter that some threats are so imminent and potentially destructive that not eliminating them is more catastrophic than conducting a strike that might trigger a backlash over the longer term.40 Others suggest that locals actually see these strikes as more benign than alternatives, such as the ground forces (whether the target country's or the United States'), which would likely displace large parts of the local population and destroy infrastructure.41 This also seems to be a sustainable position. In fact, the two accounts could be fully compatible with each other if it means that in the short term, militants are killed but in the longer term, more militants are created. Leaders in a democracy might still have incentives to stop tomorrow's attack and then deal with the possibility of future attacks as they arise.
Investigating these two perspectives systematically is important since it bears on the types of counterterrorism and counter-radicalization efforts that would be needed alongside the drone strikes, and on the overall wisdom of the current policy. However, the question is a difficult one to evaluate empirically, the reason being that the location of strikes is not randomly distributed. They occur where there are militants, so looking at militant activity after a strike would not be independent of the reason why there were strikes in the first place. Saying that there is more militant activity in Waziristan after a strike compared to in Switzerland after no strike is not meaningful since the reason for the initial strike is that Waziristan was a breeding ground for terrorism.
Data on drone strikes presents challenges for this sort of comparison. Some scholars suggest that they can match an area with a strike against one without a strike and attribute differences in militant activity to the cause of the drone strike; these studies have found that drone strikes lower the incidence and lethality of terrorist attacks, though the studies cannot vouch for the long-term consequences, which would be important given that a blowback effect would be a longer-term proposition of recruitment, training, and planning a terrorist attack.42 The finding directly challenges other studies that have shown a lower probability of organizational collapse than groups who have not lost their leaders.43
Although the empirical question of whether drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill is a difficult one to answer, there is certainly a plausible theoretical linkage between drone strikes and blowback, as well as persuasive qualitative evidence to this effect.44 Given this possibility that the use of drone strikes contributes to radicalization, President Obama argued that "the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy," including the role of foreign assistance. Despite acknowledging the importance of this investment, budget requests for foreign assistance have seen little improvement in recent years, despite this being an area that could strengthen the populations that are turning to terrorism. At the least then, for those who see drone strikes as a tactical success, the potential adverse strategic consequences would warrant an offset through other means, including foreign assistance.