Because of technological advances in military weapons, today’s American soldiers increasingly stare at computer screens rather than into the whites of their enemies’ eyes. The predator drone, an unmanned aircraft with the ability to kill enemy combatants without risking American soldiers, is possibly the most controversial of these innovations. Most of the debate surrounding drones is over their morality or legality. However, another concern less often addressed is that the use of drones allows the U.S to pursue an ineffective counterinsurgency policy that prioritizes killing enemy combatants over eliminating insurgency. To begin to end terrorism abroad, the U.S needs to invest the costly military aid necessary to win the hearts and minds of locals. More specifically, the most effective strategy to accomplish this is COIN (counterinsurgency) because it reduces insurgents’ standing with the local population, as well as their ability to use terrorist tactics to maintain a monopoly of force. Unfortunately, the popularity of and the ease with which drone strikes are conducted will further incentive the U.S. to keep launching them to contain insurgent groups, claiming to be winning the war on terror without addressing its root causes.
Drone strikes are used for several reasons: they are cheap, have support from the American public, and in some cases, are necessary. As Bloomberg Business‘s Romesh Ratnesar notes, the cost of an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned drone is about a tenth of the cost of an F-22, the U.S Air Force’s most advanced fighter plane. A majority of Americans support drone strikes, and, in some cases where local government forces are weak, drone strikes are the simplest way to eliminate terrorists. But above all, they kill enemy combatants without risking the lives of American soldiers.
Given these benefits of drone strikes, it makes sense that they are a popular option for killing individual terrorists. However, according to Dr. Kaliv Sepp, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations Capabilities, the best way to end terrorism as a whole is to secure a country and win the hearts and minds of the local people rather than focus exclusively on killing combatants. Sepp argues in favor of COIN as a strategy designed to engage with the local population and uproot insurgents. By expelling the insurgents, COIN works to end terrorism, a tactic used by many insurgents to enforce their rule. Unfortunately, this is no simple task. When a government loses control of a region, insurgents provide security and other vital services, and thereby endear themselves to locals.
Thus, a necessary component of winning hearts and minds is eliminating reliance on insurgent services, which can be accomplished only by first creating a capable domestic army that can reimpose the power of the regional government in the long run. Aside from this requirement, Dr. David Kicullen of the Australian army cites 28 components essential to the hearts and mind strategy, including preparing to hand over control to the locals from day one. As the numbers and details of Kicullen’s suggestions imply, this strategy is costly, and many argue it would lead to flawed state-building efforts.
However, in spite of its own share of problems, the COIN strategy remains the best approach if one takes into account the failed American counterinsurgency in Vietnam and Soviet counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. These two historical cases demonstrate the danger in counterinsurgencies that aren’t tailored enough to address the needs of each respective country. For example, when the U.S. decided to train Vietnamese forces to act specifically as American units, it undermined Vietnamese capacity to act autonomously after the U.S. withdrawal. Furthermore, both counterinsurgencies failed to “engage the population” and create governments and measures to address the specific needs of local people since the U.S. and U.S.S.R. devoted too many resources to killing militants, instead. By contrast, the American surge in Afghanistan effectively subdued terrorism in the occupied Kandahar and Helmand provinces, and trained Afghan forces. The largest failure in the Afghan counterinsurgency so far is the lack of American willingness to keep paying the cost of the effort, not the failure of the strategy itself.
COIN has also helped the Sunni population temporarily stop ethnic violence in order to target al-Qaeda in Iraq. Military historian Kim Kagan argues that increased military presence helped encourage Sunnis to engage and eventually cooperate with American troops. While other factors definitely contributed to the pause in sectarian violence — such as a fallout between the Sunnis and al-Qaeda — Americans definitely won the hearts and minds of many Iraqis. Though Iraq remains in chaos, it is due to the failure of Iraqi security forces to apply their training and fill the void after the surge rather than the surge itself, which was carried out successfully. Therefore, the bottom line is that American counterinsurgency efforts could include drone strikes, but should focus more on training military forces to function effectively without U.S. aid after it is eventually withdrawn; on enabling soldiers to provide vital services to the population; and on winning the hearts and minds of locals.
Despite this logic, the U.S. seems more eager to eliminate terrorists than to end terrorism, and is able to do so with continued drone use. CBC News reports that the U.S. led coalition has increased drone strikes against ISIL militants this year, and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that drone strikes still account for a significant portion of our military support to Yemen and Pakistan. Yet, these strikes have acted more to prune insurgent organizations rather than topple them. ISIL has recruited enough new members to compensate for losses sustained in coalition drone strikes, and Datta Khel and Shawal in Pakistan’s Waziristan region still remain Taliban strongholds. Moreover, these strikes are carried out in lieu of providing more aid and ground forces. Even if these drone strikes had removed ISIL and the Taliban from these areas, the end result would likely have been a power vacuum since the local governments would not have had the military means to secure these regions, or create conditions for locals to avoid relying on insurgents for basic services.
The history of drone warfare suggests that drone strikes do little to reduce terrorist activity, and when not supplemented with effective military aid, they fail to provide a viable alternative to local reliance on insurgents. The U.S. is in a difficult spot: it doesn’t want to deploy the ground forces necessary to remove terrorism, but it can’t ignore what the public feels is a grave threat to national security. This is certainly a serious dilemma, but the alternative the U.S. has adopted — striking terrorist organizations and claiming to be winning the war on terror without directly addressing its root causes — amounts to little more than dishonest rhetoric.
As I see it, the U.S. is obligated to employ measures to actually eliminate terrorism and fulfill its commitment to the public as long as there is a war on terror. At best, terrorism is being contained for now. Unfortunately, the public support for and low cost of drone strikes continues to incentivize policy makers to argue that containment is equivalent to winning the war on terror. Therefore, in spite of the serious, practical objections to its drone-centric counterinsurgency policy, the U.S. will likely continue to strike insurgents, and at the cost of prolonging terrorism.
Sebastian Alarcon, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.