The Pros and Cons of Killer Drones

Slaying the head of Pakistani Taliban has strengthened their case, but the robots have their doubters.

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After a rough start, the last month has been very, very good for the drones.

In mid-July, the case for the unmanned, Hellfire-armed, CIA operated vehicles took a blow with reports that Dick Cheney maintained a secret assassination program that employed--what else?--lethal drones to fell al-Qaeda without Congressional approval. In late July, the drones got a boost when they were reported to have killed Osama Bin Laden's son a few months earlier. Now, the killing of the head of the Pakistani Taliban has raised their profile much further.

But is this enough to resolve the debate? Many on the left and in military circles have voiced concerns that drones are crude, imprecise, and counterproductive instruments of warfare, even as Obama continues Bush's policy of favoring them in hard-to-reach border areas. Pakistani officials have been furious about the number of civilian deaths. On the balance, are the merits of drones stronger than their flaws? Here are the best arguments in recent months for and against them.


  • Perfect Tools for Unconventional, Single-Target Warfare says Annie Lowrey at Foreign Policy. "But if the U.S. military can kill such looming figures in the radical world without sacrificing a single troop, or ground efforts, or too many civilians? We're looking at a very different vision of counter-terrorism and war."
  • Precision from Afar says Peter Walker of the Guardian. "The US military and CIA regard the drones as invaluable because of their long range and the way they can attack specific buildings even deep within Taliban-dominated areas."
  • Proof in the Results, says Nathan Hodge at Wired. "If reports prove true, it could be considered a victory in the controversial war-by-remote-control over Pakistan's tribal areas. Mehsud is Pakistan's most wanted man -- he has a $5 million bounty on his head -- and is blamed for a wave of suicide bombings, as well as orchestrating the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in late 2007."


  • "Surgical" Killings Won't Root Out Terrorism says Spencer Ackerman. "What we've learned, at painful cost, over years and years and years, is that the issue isn't the leader of an extremist movement. It's the network that supports it, and the conditions that allow it to take root among a population."
  • Counterproductive and Destabilizing, says David Kilcullen (a counterinsurgency expert) to Noah Shachtman at Wire. "We need to be extremely careful about undermining the longer-term objective -- a stable Pakistan, where elected politicians control their own national-security establishment, and extremism is diminishing -- for the sake of collecting scalps"
  • Pakistanis Despise Them, say Bobby Ghosh and Mark Thompson in Time. "The accusation of cowardice is especially damaging in the tribal areas, where bravery is regarded as an essential quality in an ally."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.