The Efficacy of Drone Strikes in the War on Terror

For the past ten years now, the United States has been involved in a campaign using drones to target and kill individuals, largely run and controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The government has also been involved in supporting similar programs in other nations such as Yemen and Somalia. These programs have become the center of much controversy given the lack of transparency in their operations and the question of the efficacy and long-term results of the programs. As citizens of a functioning democracy, it is necessary that we examine the policies under which our government operates and the actions that they carry out. The policy of the United States in pursuing targeted killings through drone strikes is to limit and degrade the ability, as well as discouraging the continued efforts of terrorist organizations. As such, we must examine just how we have succeeded, and how it affects the larger War on Terror.

In 1962, Morris Greenspan, a British soldier and legal adviser for the British government in the Middle East and Africa, wrote a paper on unconventional warfare. Though he was writing on the subject before drone strikes were a common tactic, the points he made on the question of who is a reasonable and lawful target remain relevant while the drone campaign continues. He argues that unconventional warfare is “unusual or unorthodox ways of carrying the fight to an enemy,” as are drones strikes.[1] If we view the drone strikes as unconventional warfare, we must view the whole conflict as a war between two different unconventional forces, neither of which operates as a state, which instead is a war we fight “without admitting they exist”.[2]

As such, this war is less a war of the traditional sense, but truly is a war for the hearts and minds of individuals across the world. We cannot only rely on the actual military effect that the strikes have, but must also maintain careful consideration of how these strikes affect the public opinion of the United States and the War on Terror. I have done my best to examine both those views in this essay.

The Efficacy of Drone Strikes

According to the New America Foundation, that there have been 377 US drone strikes in Pakistan, and 114 strikes in Yemen to date, for a total of 491 drone strikes in both countries.[3] For this number of strikes, and for the amount of deaths that have been attributed to the drone strikes of the United States, we would expect a marked effect on the structure of Al-Qaeda and their associates. Yet, as noted by Smith and Walsh, “there is considerable debate in the academic literature about the effectiveness of targeted killings”.[4]

Many previous studies on the effect of targeted killings use the number of attacks launched and claimed by the targeted groups as the dependent variable. However, Smith and Walsh argue that as “Al Qaeda does not always claim credit for acts of violence that it commits,” and has “adopted a less hierarchical form of organization”[5] in order to limit vulnerability, the number of attacks committed does not suffice as a reasonable variable for determining the effect that American drone strikes have had on Al-Qaeda.

Since both the CIA-led drone strike program and Al-Qaeda operate largely under a veil of secrecy, the arguments of Smith and Walsh about the questionable reliability of these variables must be accepted as a basic fact. However, even operating under those conditions, we can rely on multiple variables instead to judge the results of targeted killing programs. Smith and Walsh chose to rely on the output of propaganda from Al-Qaeda, which has been a historical function of their organization. In their study, they found that though there has been a high number of drone strikes in Pakistan, the propaganda output from Al-Qaeda has continued to be high in both volume and quality. As such, they argue that there is little proof for the efficacy of the drone strike program.

Of course, drones are not the only, nor the first, weapon used by the United States for targeted attacks against terrorist organizations. Following the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by Al-Qaeda, the United States government launched tomahawk missile attacks against Al-Qaeda bases in Sudan and Afghanistan, in order to “damage their capacity to strike at Americans and other innocent people.”[6] Yet of course, as was shown only three years later, the ability and desire of Al-Qaeda to strike the United States was clearly not disabled or degraded. Also, there were other attacks and attempted attacks by Al-Qaeda operatives in Jordan and in Yemen in the years between 1998 and 2001.[7]

All of this increasingly undermines the justifications for the drone strikes and their lack of transparency. If there is no hard evidence that the program has led to a marked decrease in the ability of terrorist organizations to operate, the United States is attempting to build a castle on a cloud, which will shortly fall through to the ground.

Effect on Popular Opinion

Regardless of the efficacy, or lack thereof, in degrading the ability of terrorist organizations to operate, the public response to drone strikes is arguably just as important in the War on Terror, where the United States must not only meet the military threat, but also convince possible terrorists not to join groups such as Al-Qaeda. Public opinion is also far easier to gauge than the effect on the operational ability of terrorist groups, since the civilian population is generally not seeking to hide their opinion of drone strikes.

In May of 2013, Pew Research published a survey taken on the eve of the national elections. Though “about half now say the Taliban is a very serious threat to their country,” the idea of the United States continuing its military fight against the Taliban and other groups in Pakistan is highly unpopular.[8] Indeed, according to the Pew poll, roughly two thirds of the country opposes the drone strikes, regardless of whether or not they are conducted with the support and allowance of the Pakistani government.

The actual number of civilian deaths have been disputed by different parties, with American officials arguing that relatives of targets may choose to not acknowledge their involvement with militant organizations, and as Daniel Byman noted in 2009, “sourcing on civilian deaths is weak and the numbers are often exaggerated,”[9] especially since Pakistani government control of most areas where drone strikes occur is tenuous at best, and instead, militant groups often are the only actual authorities in the area. However, regardless of the disputed numbers of civilian casualties, the general public has expressed displeasure with the high amount of civilian casualties, both in the areas where the strikes occur, and in the United States.[10]


[1] Greenspan, International Law and Unconventional Warfare, 31

[2] Greenspan, 32

[3] New America Foundation, International Security:

[4] Smith & Walsh, 313

[5] Smith & Walsh, 313

[6] Michel Malvesti, The New World Disorder, 4

[7] Malvesti, The New World Disorder, 4

[8] Pew Research, May, 2013

[9] Daniel Byman, Do Targeted Killings Work? Brookings Institute, July 2009

[10] Pew Research, May 2013