Solutions to Violent Conflict

Combat Drones: Losing the Fight Against Terrorism

In Afghanistan, Counterterrorism, War on October 1, 2009 at 9:03 am

Mary Ellen O’Connell

The United States is using combat drones — remotely piloted missile aircraft — to target terrorist leaders in the volatile border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This continues despite the high number of civilians killed. Credible estimates find that, between 2006 and early 2009, about 700 civilians were killed in the course of targeting 14 individuals — a ratio of 50 people killed to each one targeted.1

Counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen wrote in The New York Times that killing leaders of terrorist groups has only a short-term impact on repressing terrorist violence, while every civilian killed in such actions “represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement …” 2

In June 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal restricted the use of airstrikes in Afghanistan because of the high number of civilian deaths. He ordered that “[t]he restrictions … be especially tight in attacking houses and compounds where insurgents are believed to have taken cover.” McChrystal explained that “[a]ir power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly …. We can lose this fight.” 3

His orders apparently do not apply to the use of drones in Pakistan. But they should. The high number of civilian deaths in Pakistan is a legal, moral, and practical problem that affects U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and beyond.

No Way to Win Friends

U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan began in 2004, but it is not clear that this action is legal. The Pakistani government has not given express consent and often protests the strikes. The United States is undermining its attempts to rebuild its reputation, win friends, and influence events in the region. If the United States wants Pakistan’s civilian-elected government to succeed, it must treat that government with respect and defer to its policies. Sending drones in the face of Pakistani protests does not demonstrate respect.

The high civilian death rate from drone attacks creates anger that is aimed against the government and in favor of those who will avenge the deaths. As Kilcullen notes, people hate the constant menacing of attack robots overhead. These factors make the use of drone attacks counterproductive.

The high civilian death rate from drone attacks creates anger that is aimed against the government and in favor of those who will avenge the deaths.

Some argue that drones can be operated so that they kill fewer civilians. This is unlikely, in part, for the very reason the military is using drones. They fly to remote areas, in difficult terrain, where the United States has trouble getting good information. Fewer civilians would die if we sent ground forces, but such missions would be extremely difficult and dangerous. Instead, we use drones, which are safer for the United States. They fly to remote areas with cameras and infrared sensors and send back data to “pilots” — who are in trailers at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

The decision to strike

A human being operates the drone in a booth, viewing a monitor and using a joystick. The situation resembles a video game. The “pilot” makes the decision to strike after clearance from a joint tactical air controller. In the Iraq war, joint tactical air controllers might have been U.S. service personnel on the ground in Iraq. It is not clear who the joint tactical air controllers are for Pakistan or who is involved in analyzing drone video.

The more remote an individual is from the actual act of killing, the easier it is to carry out.

Pilots make the ultimate decision to strike, but they act on the basis of uncertain video and sensor information. These are often split-second decisions, and humans may tend to rely more on the drone’s computer than on their own judgment. This tendency is encouraged by the fact that remote pilots are responsible for many missions every day—more all the time–meaning many stressful decisions every day. It is only natural to defer to the computer and make the decision to strike without second-guessing.

Studies have long indicated that the more remote an individual is from the actual act of killing, the easier it is to carry out. It is hard to think of a place more remote from Pakistan than Nevada.

Disproportionate loss of life

Drones are a delivery vehicle for conventional weapons. The missiles and bombs fired from drones are the same as those fired from planes or stationary launchers. These are not considered unlawful or inhumane. There are, however, restrictions on weapons that have no or little value in achieving military objectives, or that do so with disproportionate loss of life and property. Landmines and cluster weapons have been banned on the basis of these principles.

Drones should be banned from use in Pakistan for the same reasons. They are counterproductive and indiscriminate. They undermine strategic objectives as they fuel militancy and terrorist recruitment. They inevitably kill more unintended than intended targets. They fail on practical, legal, and moral grounds.

Mary Ellen O’Connell is Research Professor of International Dispute Resolution at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame.


1 Hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Effective Counterinsurgency: the future of the U.S. Pakistan Military Partnership, April 23, 2009 (Testimony of David Kilcullen).
2 D. Kilcullen and A. McDonald, Death From Above, Outrage Down Below, N.Y. Times, Mar. 17, 2009.
3 Dexter Filkins, U.S. Tightens Airstrike Policy in Afghanistan, N.Y.Times, June 22, 2009.
  1. This article deliberately ignores the fact that with each round of drone strikes, the targeting gets better and the civilian casualties get fewer. Drones are a relatively new weapon and it should not shock anyone that the first uses of them were imprecise.

    This is a typical example of assembling only the facts that support one’s pre-conceived conclusion, as opposed to drawing one’s conclusions from an objective review of the facts.

  2. you’ve got to be kidding
    striking hi value targets
    while listening to the propaganda about innocent civilian deaths
    remember the World Trade Center. the people there we’re all innocent and many times since, guerilla warfare know no boundries
    too bad we don’t have autonomous robots

  3. Not that this is going to be read these many years later, but

    @sanityinjection, first, you have to be at least slightly aware of the effect your callous tone is going to have on others.

    But I can play on your level. You also have to realize that every opportunity we have to improve our drone-using technique is an opportunity for the U.S.’ enemies to improve their drone-defense technique.

    It’s already ridiculously easy to create and use surface-to-air missiles. The thing that makes drones combat effective are the fact that we weren’t used to them, and the fact that they’re fast. But the idea of automating a simple aerial defense has to have occurred to people before, and it’s a guarantee that drone incidents have been instigated both for the purpose of propaganda and the purpose of defensive training.

  4. I actually was initially looking for points for my personal web site and
    discovered ur blog, “Combat Drones: Losing the Fight Against Terrorism | Peace
    Policy” Window Shade , do you really mind if perhaps I employ a few of your ideas?

    Thanks ,Michael

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