Drone Strikes: Complicated but Necessary

The recent release of data on U.S. drone strikes has led to well-intentioned but misinformed criticism of the use of drones. In part, this is because we are the captives of our own rhetoric. When we call our opponents terrorists, this obscures their true intent. Our opponents are better understood as insurgents, seeking to overthrow existing governments and replace them with states governed by sharia law. Terror is one tactic they use in this effort. A powerful ideology motivates them to strike civilian targets in the states they regard as opponents or as vulnerable, to punish and to destabilize.
Insurgents need sanctuaries, places where they can train, equip, plan, and rest without fear of attack. Sanctuaries are an important factor for a successful insurgency. Sanctuaries are places where the defending forces cannot go, either because they have lost control of the territory or because those places are in another country. When insurgents locate sanctuaries in other countries, it may mean that the hosting state supports the insurgents or is indifferent to them. Other times, it is too weak to enforce its own laws.
If a sanctuary is located in another nation’s territory, the hosting state has, of course, failed to meet its obligations under international law to prevent its lands from being used for attacks on its neighbors. This failure must be part of any discussion of the legality of drone strikes (putting aside the question of whether the host state is complicit in privately sanctioning drone use), along with a recognition of the right (not unlimited) to self-defense.
The options for the defending force in attacking sanctuaries are complicated by concerns for violations of sovereignty and the possibility of an escalation of conflict. Cross-border raids violate the hosting nation’s sovereignty and run the risk of casualties, hard-to-explain casualties if the operation was undertaken with the permission or knowledge of the host state. While the ability to extract raiding forces has improved significantly in the past 20 years, these intrusive operations hold greater risk than a drone strike. A decision to send forces to occupy the territory where sanctuaries are located is even riskier when these territories are located in another state.
Air strikes against insurgent facilities pose similar risks. Even in areas where air operations do not violate sovereignty, we have seen how these opponents treat captured pilots. Again, while recovery operations for downed pilots have improved dramatically, an air strike still creates risks of casualties and failure. Depending on the ordnance used, air operations can also run the risk of greater civilian casualties or unnecessary damage.
A third option is, of course, to do nothing, wait for the insurgents to begin operations in your territory and hope you can stop them before they inflict harm. This would be a truly massive failure of strategy. Permitting the insurgents to develop and use a sanctuary increases the risk of attack by them and will lengthen any conflict. If you do not take the war to them, they will take the war to you.
Denying insurgents a sanctuary is essential for defeating them. We have seen that the fear of drones has caused opponent leaders to change their behavior, introducing an element of anxiety into their routines and degrading their ability to plan. Of the options for denying sanctuary, drone strikes are the best. They hold no risk of casualties for the defending force. They are less intrusive than sending infantry or manned aircraft. They deny the insurgents sanctuary. And they avoid the trap of doing nothing and hoping that the insurgents will go away. Naturally, the insurgents will seek to use political means to dissuade the defending force from using drones. One common tactic is to inflate the number of civilian casualties in an effort to sway public opinion in the West (by providing false information to researchers, for example). Any civilian casualty is tragic, and more could be done to minimize them, but the United States has been placed in an unfortunate position where not taking the risk of civilian casualties in a drone strike increases the risk of civilian casualties from terrorism. The equation for defenders is simple: fewer drone strikes mean more attacks on civilians.
Opponents of drone strikes appeal to a false logic when they deny this equation. The discovery that there are no simple linear connections that easily demonstrate an inverse relationship between the number of drone strikes and the number of terrorist acts leads some to conclude that the strikes have limited value. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of conflict. Wars with insurgents are messy. They are not films or television shows where there is a clear plot line and a neat ending after 90 minutes. None of the options presented above is pleasant or desirable, but drones are a legitimate defense and necessary against unscrupulous opponents in a difficult conflict that will not end anytime soon.
James A. Lewis is senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and has been on both the sending and the receiving end of the insurgent/sanctuary question.  
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