What We Misunderstand About Drones

A practice of shoot first and ask questions later, and an over-emphasis on short-term gains, make us more reliant on these tools than we maybe should be.

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An anti-drone protester flashes the victory sign in front of an image of drone during a rally in Karachi. (Reuters)

The New York Times' blockbuster article on President Obama's counterterrorism policies has sparked wide discussion of his evolution into a president focused very strongly on killing terrorists. Americans are also debating the effectiveness and morality of drones. These are important conversations to be having, to which I'd add some of the common misconceptions about drones. The first is that drones are cheap, and the second is that they're replacing other forms of military operations.

Drones might seem like a cheap and easy way to wage war, but that's not always the case. They require a substantial base of operations and support staff to function, which means they can actually cost more than traditional aircraft to purchase and function. And public anger over drones in the targeted countries has created severe political blowback, adding challenges for U.S. diplomacy and influence in parts of the world that are already tough enough to manage.

There's also a common assumption that defeating terrorism requires a fundamentally kinetic approach. Obviously, that's often true, but the point is that it's not categorically true. And sometimes the kinetic approach can be costly. In Yemen, there is very little evidence that the growing use of drones has actually reduced the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In Pakistan, while drones have reduced the presence and reach of al-Qaeda Central, they have not necessarily diminished the global challenge posed by the group's ideology. Furthermore, this drone-associated political turmoil has had disastrous consequences for that country's internal politics and economy -- meaning there is some risk that our drones might contribute to further destabilizing a country armed with a hundred nuclear weapons.

There are other ways of addressing the problem of terrorism. Current U.S. strategy is primarily about violence: hunt down and kill suspected terrorists. But allowing the Defense Department and the CIA to target people they cannot identify -- to kill people who behave suspiciously without knowing who they are or what their intentions are -- doesn't really seem like self-defense. And it risks creating more instability, more state failure, and thus bigger problems in the future.

Yemen is a perfect example of what can go wrong. In 2007, AQAP was a worrying presence in the country's hinterlands, but not yet a major force in national politics. The U.S. lavished the regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh with hundreds of millions of dollars in training, equipment, and U.S. personnel. The U.S. also made Yemen its second most active battlefield for "surgical strikes" and drone operations, after Pakistan. However, after years of increasingly violent actions against AQAP, there are more al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen than ever before. The Saleh government lied to the U.S. about targets, possibly exploiting them to take out his rival. The U.S. has said that it treats opponents to the current government in Yemen as part of the same larger threat as al-Qaeda terrorists. Talk about mission creep.

The policy of thwacking terrorists with drones (or even with small special forces teams or aircraft) has not, so far, been hugely successful at changing the targeted environments such that terrorism is neither growing nor a major threat to the U.S. It has killed a lot of people associated with al-Qaeda (in addition to people not associated with al-Qaeda). But the movement and potentially affiliated branches are on the march in Northern Africa, in Nigeria, in Mali, in Somalia, and in Yemen.

A broader approach could, for example, place more emphasis on affecting social and political currents that presently support the terrorist movements and ideologies. One interesting project is the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, an inter-agency shop created last September and run out of the State Department. The group recently posted, to a jihadi forum, Photoshoped images meant to reverse al-Qaeda's online propaganda -- and, in the process, created a lot of nervous responses from al-Qaeda posters about the unreliability of the internet.

The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications's gambit was a small victory, but one that could presage a more creative, less invasive approach to countering terrorists; using their own tools against them. Creativity, agility, and innovation -- things the U.S. is actually quite good at -- seem more promising as a long-term counterterrorism strategy than throwing drones at every country with a security problem.

The problem with drones is not the drones themselves, but the trend of killing first and asking questions later.