Playing with Fire: Drone Operations, Backlash and Violations of

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Playing with Fire:

Drone Operations, Backlash and Violations of

National Autonomy

Nicolas Cotton-Baez, Eurasia Center, September 2012
Drones are an incredibly valuable tactical tool in wartime in that they are precise and limit civilian casualties. With that said, drone strikes outside of internationally recognized combat areas are extremely controversial. Unintended consequences include civilian casualties, decreased bilateral cooperation and US abandonment of long-term anti-terror strategy. The question of how these consequences can be mitigated is of extraordinary relevance.

Heading the drone campaigns is none other than President Barak Obama, who vowed only four years ago to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. In his Presidential campaign, Obama seemed adamant about improving relations with the Muslim world; however, he has begun to follow the growing enemy into new and even more dangerous lands.1

Drone campaigns are carried out in the in the strangest of bureaucratic rituals. Over one-hundred members of the government’s national security apparatus convene every week or so, by teleconference, to review terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should die.2 The nominations then go to the White House where Obama, with the guidance of the C.I.A.’s John Brennan, must sign off every strike.

The nomination process, however, is very controversial, with very few guidelines to determine what constitutes an Al Qaeda facilitator. For example, if someone opens a gate for a suspected terrorist, does that make him a facilitator? Citizens residing in the targeted countries live in constant fear of being marked as such and becoming the drone’s next victim.

Likewise, the presidential formula for counting civilian deaths is problematic. Many officials think the method is skewed to produce low numbers. Unless there is explicit intelligence proving them innocent, the formula counts all military-ages males in a strike zone as combatants. Thus, the method may partially explain claims of incredibly low collateral deaths. 3

White House discussions of long-term strategy against Al Qaeda have been sidelined by the concentrated focus on drone strikes. The strikes are desirable in that they provide presidents with a chance to do something in the short-term, e.g. President Obama appears to the electorate as effectively targeting high-ranking terrorists, thus making progress in the war on terror. However, the US will have created the normative use of drones; therefore, when in the future other nations achieve the technology they will likely use it alike.4 Finally, with no long-term plan in action, we must ask, “How much killing will be enough?” 5

Drone campaigns that take place outside of armed conflict areas often infuriate the targeted country’s population. Further, the strikes tarnish US legitimacy and sometimes affect bilateral cooperation. Pakistan for example, passed a resolution in April that set the cessation of drone strikes as a condition for the reopening of supply routes to Afghanistan.6 The supply routes were reopened after Secretary of State Hilary Clinton issued an apology for a November airstrike that killed two-dozen Pakistani Soldiers7; yet, the drone strikes continue. Recently, a drone in North Waziristan fired off six missiles in a matter of minutes. Twenty people were killed and it remains unclear if any were civilians.8

Drone campaigns have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for terrorists. After failing to set off a car bomb in Times Square, Faisal Shahzad justified targeting civilians by saying, “When the drones hit, they don’t see children.”9 Drone strikes efficiently transfer sacrifice from soldiers to civilians, helping to justify, in the minds of terrorists, attacks on US citizenry.10 For instance, after the US ramped up its Yemen operations in 2009, the ranks of Al Qaeda militants in the Arabian Peninsula have almost tripled.11

For Pakistanis, drone strikes are frequent and familiar; however, it is no longer the greatest venue for targeted killings. The White House has declared Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen to be America’s biggest terrorist threat. So far this year, there have been more strikes in Yemen than there have been in Pakistan. What is being conducted in Yemen is very secretive and lacks an articulated strategy of desired American strategic outcomes. Without a strategy, the US risks being sucked further into conflict and could even find itself participating in a civil war. 12

Without soldiers on the ground, we cannot investigate civilian deaths and reconcile with family members and friends of victims. Thus, drone strikes undermine the lessons learned from interacting with victims of warfare.13 The entire world watches as these controversial drone strikes are carried out. The US is, therefore, setting the normative practice for such technologies – what the US does, the world will follow.14

Policy makers can indeed limit the amount of collateral damage permitted in drone campaigns; however, they are hesitant to do so since no one want to be the one to impede a drone strike that would have prevented a future catastrophe.15 With that being said, global standards and guidelines on how to use both surveillance and weaponized drones need to be implemented.


  1. Becker, Jo & Scott Shane. “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will.” The New York Times. 29 May 2012. Web. 11 July 2012.

  2. Ackerman, Spencer & Noah Shachtman. “Let’s Admit it: The U.S. is at War in Yemen, Too.” Brookings Institute. 14 June 2012. Web. 11 July 2012.

  3. Bergen, Peter & Jennifer Rowland. “Drones Decimating Taliban in Pakistan.” 3 July 2012. Web. 11 July 2012.

  4. Omar, Ayza. “20 Dead in Drone Attack in Pakistan.” 6 July 2012. Web. 11 July 2012.

  5. Fox News & The Associated Press. “Clinton Apologizes to Pakistan for Airstrike Deaths, Says Supply Line to Re-open.” 3 July 2012. Web. 11 July 2012.

  6. Conference at German Marshall Fund. “Armed Drones and Targeted Killing: International Norms, Unintended Consequences, and the Challenge of Non-Traditional Conflict.” The German Marshall Fund. 27 June 2012.

1 – Secret Kill List




6 – Pakistan Drone Attack




10 German Marshall Fund

11 Brookings

12 Brookings

13 German Marshall Fund

14 German Marshall Fund

15 German Marshall Fund

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