Yes, Sometimes Drones Are Actually Effective

In Yemen, drones can work if they're part of a larger strategy, but not if they are the strategy.

U.S. military handout image of a predator drone. (Reuters)

The public debate about the American use of drones continues unabated, focused mostly on the morality of drone warfare. Sunday, for example, the New York Times ran one stories on the moral case for drones and one on the moral hazard they represent.

These two angles to the debate -- whether drones impose an intolerable moral hazard, or whether they allow policymakers to counter terrorism while minimizing harm -- are important. The morality of decisions that our leaders make is important, especially when there is a question of whether those decisions clash with our values. And when drones are widely reported to result in unintended civilian casualties (how many is disputed) the moral case cannot be ignored.

Apart from morality, the other side of the debate about drones is their effectiveness. There is a reasonably strong case to be made that the zealous use of drones in Pakistan has made U.S.-Pakistani relations far worse, though whether that change matters in the long run is an open question. In Yemen, too, the use of drones has carried some evidence of political blowback -- though, again, whether that matters in the long run is unclear.

If innocent people are being killed, then the drones program needs to be effective at reducing the terror threat. Otherwise, too many innocent people are being killed for dubious results.

The effectiveness of the drones program, however, is not easy to determine. How do you assess the damage? According to some analysis, only about 500 of the reported 2500 targets of drone strikes in Pakistan have been positively identified. Many residents in Pakistan and Yemen claim that far more civilians die in drone strikes than is reported in the West; However, when PBS sent a reporter to Yemen to investigate, in part, the drone campaign, they found that many residents just assume all air strikes on suspected terrorist sites come from drones (at least some of those strikes come from Yemeni aircraft, not drones).

Broader effects about terrorism can be measured, though that kind of analysis is limited. In Yemen, analysts dispute whether or not the drone campaign itself has contributed to the expansion of al-Qaeda there. Iona Craig, a journalist based in Yemen, has reported through interviews that drones have "swelled al-Qaeda's ranks." Yemeni politicians also argue that drones help al-Qaeda, as does the Washington Post. Christopher Swift, a lawyer and academic based in DC, interviewed local elders in Yemen in May; he categorically argues that drones do not have any negative social effects there.

While Swift's report (disclosure: he is a friend) is a minority view among reports out of Yemen, it cannot be discounted out of hand: he is accurately reporting that the Yemenis he spoke to believe there are no negative effects of the drone campaign. But can the overall behavior of al-Qaeda in Yemen give us lessons?

Over the last three years, the reported size of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has about tripled. AQAP has successfully stormed and occupied entire towns (through its clever rebranding as Ansar al-Shariah). The long-serving dictatorship more or less collapsed under the weight of mass protests, though the dictator's replacement is more of a stooge than a real change.

Yemen has faced increasing challenges and upheaval, in other words. During this same period of time, U.S. drones, as well as Yemeni and American aircraft, pounded the desert towns where AQAP thrives, killing dozens of suspected militants and fewer (though no one knows how many fewer) civilians. It is difficult to make the case that -- whatever the ultimate mixture of militants and civilians, and whatever the effects on Yemeni society -- the use of drones has contributed meaningfully to Yemen's stability or to neutralizing AQAP. (There is a counterfactual that, without drones, the problem with be worse, but it's impossible to really say.)

In recent months, however, Yemen has seen some of its fortunes shift. The Yemeni army retook the AQAP-occupied towns of Ja'ar and Zinjibar, which AQAP had held up to PBS as an example of its reach and power. While AQAP has responded with a new wave of violence, the Yemeni army is, for the time being at least, holding onto its territory.

No one knows whether the defeat of AQAP's territorial ambitions is permanent. But what the recent offensives in Yemen's south do show is that, whatever the effects of drones, they require effective forces on the ground to deny territory to terrorist groups.

This, then, is the lesson about how drones can be effective: they must serve a strategy. They cannot be the strategy, as they sometimes are. For too long, it seemed, the only possible response to a terrorism threat in Yemen was a drone strike (or cruise missile or air strike). U.S. intelligence agencies managed to unravel some plots if the Saudis or Brits gave them a heads up. But the only tool in the American arsenal seemed to be a drone strike: lobbing missiles at unknown people in the belief that it would lessen the threat.

What seems to have really lessened the threat, though, is ground combat: the difficult, dangerous, and expensive work of clearing towns and areas of militants and restoring legitimate government control. There is clearly a role for drones in this process of rebuilding control of an area -- most drone strikes in Afghanistan, for example, are used as close air support (though even Afghan officials do not want too many drones in their territory). Where drones become problematic is when they substitute for a broader policy of engagement: where they become the strategy, rather than serving the strategy.

The current U.S. policy in Yemen is not very strongly articulated. It is often a list of aspirations ("helping the government confront the immediate security threat represented by Al Qaida, and mitigating serious political, economic and governance issues that the country faces over the long terms, the drivers of instability") that so far has not resulted in comprehensive action from the U.S. As Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen and currently a PhD candidate at Princeton wrote last year, "U.S. policy bounced from one crisis to the next without an overarching structure."

In Yemen, we've seen that allowing the government to retake areas from AQAP can be effective at addressing the terrorist threat; the U.S. should make effective Yemeni governance its next priority. The recently announced influx of aid to Yemen is being directed almost exclusively to Yemen's security services, which have already proved capable of removing AQAP from its territory. What's missing is everything else that isn't security: immediately countering the growing malnutrition there, strengthening and expanding the good governance programs groups like NED run, and establishing a long term commitment to fortifying Yemen's shaky economy.

As a part of a comprehensive strategy to both physically and politically secure the country, there is a definite role for drones to play: one that is moral, effective, and constrained. Assuming drones are the counterterrorism strategy -- an impression one can get reading some of the coverage of the drones program -- would be a mistake.